Covenant Seminary reminds us that thirty years ago today Francis Schaeffer died. I was living far away in Scotland at the time, immersed in doctoral work, so that I was unaware of his death. But when I read the notice in TIME magazine, I felt it was the end of an era and a personal loss.
Here are three reasons — for starters — why I am grateful for the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer. I never knew him personally. I had only one brief conversation with him while walking across the campus of Wheaton College in 1968. Our paths crossed on the sidewalk. I asked him, “How are you today?” He answered, “I am very tired.” And we went our separate ways. So my appreciation of Schaeffer comes from his books and preaching. As each book came out, it landed on me as nothing less than a life event. I heard him preach a number of times too. He was a different kind of preacher, and very compelling. But that leads me to my three reasons for gratitude.
One, Francis Schaeffer pioneered a new way of advancing the gospel. All my life I’d been exposed to conventional people using conventional methods, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I had the privilege of knowing men of true greatness, like my dad. But Schaeffer was just different. He located the gospel within a total Christian worldview. He talked about modern art and films and books. He spoke with prophetic insight about cultural trends. He worked out fresh ways to articulate old truths, even coining new expressions like “true truth.” He had a beard and long hair and dressed like a European. He had Christian radicalism all over him, called for by those radical times. I found him non-ignorable. To this day, I dislike conventionality, partly because I saw in Francis Schaeffer a man who made an impact not by conforming and fitting in but by standing out as the man God made him to be, the man the world needed him to be.
Two, Francis Schaeffer united in a coherent and even beautiful whole theological conviction with personal humaneness. I remember his saying once that, in a conversation with a liberal theologian, he would try to conduct himself so that the liberal would gain two clear and equal impressions. One, Schaeffer disagreed with him theologically. Two, Schaeffer cared about him personally. Moreover, Schaeffer pointed out that, in ourselves, we are unable to demonstrate simultaneously the truth and holiness of God, on the one hand, and the love and mercy of God, on the other hand. In our own strength, we will slide off toward one emphasis or the other. But as we look to the Lord moment by moment, we can hold together both theological conviction and human beauty. But only by both together can we bear living witness to the magnitude of who Jesus really is. And if we fail to show the fullness of Christ, we actually bear false witness to him, we make him ugly in human eyes, and we set his cause back, however sincere we may be.
Three, Francis Schaeffer and his wife Edith, leading L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, exemplified compelling Christian community. They welcomed all kinds of people. They attracted all kinds of people. They demonstrated a gentleness, openness and tolerance that created space for many diverse people who wouldn’t have found a home in our more typical churches. They sacrificed personally to create this rare kind of community. Their wedding gifts were wrecked, people threw up on their carpets, and so forth. The Schaeffers flung open their lives, their hearts, their space, and it cost them. But they gained many people for Christ. This bold commitment is real Christianity. Anything less is bluff and hypocrisy.