I have long had an interest in Francis Schaeffer. I am 58, which means I was a college freshman in Monroe, Louisiana, in the fall of 1983. I have distinct memories of going to the Christian bookstores (there was more than one) in Monroe and seeing various books by Schaeffer. He was one of InterVarsity Press’s key authors during those years—especially when it came to books on social issues and worldview and the pro-life movement.
Schaeffer was born in the Philadelphia area on January 30, 1912, and died in Rochester, Minnesota, on May 15, 1984. Many of us may have become aware of Schaeffer as a sporty looking older man with a goatee, wearing lederhosen, and lecturing in the Swiss Alps at L’Abri (“L’Abri” is French for “shelter”). But Schaeffer was quite American. He attended Westminster Theological Seminary for a year (founded in 1929), where he studied with Cornelius Van Til. He transferred after a year to Faith Theological Seminary (founded in 1937), a newly formed seminary closely aligned with, but not controlled by, the Bible Presbyterian Church. Schaeffer was the first graduate of Faith Theological Seminary. I will not go into further detail on that era of Schaeffer’s life except to note one interesting item: Schaeffer himself was a kind of “presuppositionalist,” though Van Til offered significant criticisms of Schaeffer’s method. One time Van Til and Schaeffer were brought together to try and discuss their differences. In the midst of that meeting, Van Til was asked to summarize his own approach to apologetics. Van Til apparently gave a particularly insightful and short summary of his own position. After he was done, Schaeffer commented that he wished it had been recorded, for what Van Til had said was in fact Schaeffer’s own position exactly, and Schaeffer said he would not disagree with a single thing Van Til had said.
But though Schaeffer was a very American man, he is known to many of us through his work at L’Abri in southwestern Switzerland, about 55 miles east of Geneva. He and his wife Edith moved to Switzerland in 1947 or 1948 (I have seen both dates) to start L’Abri, something of a Christian community, study center, or place of respite. Schaeffer and others at L’Abri would lecture, and there was plenty of time for discussion. Through word of mouth, many persons heard of L’Abri and found their way to this Swiss outpost. At one point, the Schaeffers were receiving around 31 visitors a week. Luminaries such as Os Guinness and Hans Rookmaaker would make their way to L’Abri and would be influenced by Schaeffer.
Many of us who came of age in the 1980s came to know of Schaeffer through a number of key works dealing with fundamental questions of apologetics:
- The God Who is There
- Escape from Reason
- He is There and He is Not Silent
Or perhaps we came to know of Schaeffer through certain works dealing with general challenges in Evangelicalism. For example:
- The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century
- The Church Before the Watching World
- The Great Evangelical Disaster
Or perhaps we came to know Schaeffer through his interest in certain culture issues, especially the moral question of abortion and the question of the role of civil government:
- Pollution and the Death of Man
- How Should We Then Live?
- Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
- A Christian Manifesto
But Schaeffer was also intensely interested in what we often call “spirituality.” Thus, he wrote such works as:
- Two Contents, Two Realities
- The New Super-Spirituality
- True Spirituality
- The Mark of the Christian
- No Little People
I want to draw a few insights from that last book: No Little People, first published in 1974. This book is a collection of sixteen sermons. The first chapter is “No Little People, No Little Places”—the title of this talk.
No Little People
The initial theme of this chapter is Moses’s “rod.” In Exodus, Moses was called to go to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. You know this story. Moses engages in a conversation with the LORD concerning what he is to say when the Israelites doubt that the LORD has really spoken to Moses.
Exodus 4:2 reads: “The LORD said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ He said, ‘A [rod] staff.’” You know the story:
- (4:2–4) The LORD tells Moses to throw his rod on the ground. He does, and it turns into a serpent. The LORD commands Moses to put out his hand and catch the serpent by the tail. He does so, and it turns back into a rod.
- (4:5–7) The LORD then tells Moses to put his hand insides his cloak. He puts his hand inside his cloak, takes it out, and it has turned leprous “like snow.” God commands Moses to put his hand back in his cloak. He does, then takes it out, and it has returned to normal.
- (4:8–9) For the third sign, the LORD tells Moses that he (Moses) will take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. It will turn to blood on dry ground.
Moses proceeds (4:10–12.) to express concern about his own speaking abilities. The LORD’s promise is straightforward: “Go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”
Moses still doubts (4:13), the LORD’s anger is kindled, and the LORD says that Aaron, Moses’s brother, will accompany Moses. The LORD promises to speak through them both, and Aaron—at least at this point of the story—will be the one to speak to the people on behalf of Moses (4:14–16).
4:17: Moses is reminded to take his rod.
Moses will depart from Jethro, his father-in-law (4:18), and when he departs he takes with him what is now called “the rod of God.” As Schaeffer sees it, the “rod of Moses” has become the “rod of God” (p. 6).
This rod shows up again in Exodus 7:15–17 where the LORD again gives Moses a certain command. Moses has gone to Pharoah more than once since his original call in Exodus 3. At this point in the story, the LORD says:
“15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water. Stand on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the [rod] staff that turned into a serpent. 16 And you shall say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed. 17 Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood.’”
A couple verses later (4:17), we read:
“Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, with the [rod] staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood.”
The LORD says to Moses (4:19):
“Say to Aaron, ‘Take your [rod] staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”
And in Exodus 4:20:
“Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the [rod] staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood.”
After the Israelites have left Israel and are engaged in their desert wanderings, we see Moses’s rod again.
In Exodus 17:5–6, Moses is told to take his “rod,” to strike the rock once in order to provide water for the people of Israel.
Also in Exodus, when engaged in battle, Moses will hold up his rod. When he does so (17:11), Israel prevails in battle.
And later in Numbers 20:8–9. This is toward the end of the wilderness wanderings, and the Israelites again need water. The LORD says:
“Take the [rod] staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”
Of course, Moses errs and does not just tell the rock to yield its water. He actually strikes it twice (Numbers 20:11). Because of this error—and this may strike us as odd—the LORD tells Moses that Moses will not enter into the promised land (Numbers 20:12—“because you did not believe me”).
Schaeffer’s point is that God used Moses. God even used Moses’s rod to accomplish great things. Schaeffer writes that the various ways God used both the rod of Moses and Moses himself gave him courage as a young man engaging in ministry.
Schaeffer is not naïve. He knows it is God who performed the mighty, divine, saving acts in and through Moses and the rod of Moses—which had become the rod of God.
Schaeffer writes (p. 8):
Consider the mighty ways in which God used a dead stick of wood. “God so used a stick of wood” can be a banner cry for each of us. Though we are limited and weak in talent, physical energy, and psychological strength, we are not less than a stick of wood. But as the rod of Moses had to become the rod of God, so that which is me must become the me of God. Then I can become useful in God’s hands. The Scripture emphasizes that much can come from little if the little is truly consecrated to God. There are no little people and no big people in the true spiritual sense, but only consecrated and unconsecrated people. The problem for each of us is applying this truth to ourselves: is Francis Schaeffer the Francis Schaeffer of God?
No Little Places
Schaeffer then turns to the question of “place.” As the Christian matures—especially the Christian minister—should he be constantly looking for the next, bigger, place? Schaeffer writes: “As there are no little people in God’s sight, so there are no little places” (p. 9).
Schaeffer understandably turns to Luke 14:7-11 (pp. 11-12):
7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Schaeffer is quite candid in his comments on this passage: “Jesus commands Christians to seek consciously the lowest room. All of us—pastors, teachers, professional religious workers and nonprofessional included—are tempted to say, ‘I will take the larger place because it will give me more influence for Jesus Christ’” (p. 12).
Schaeffer gives two reasons why Christians should not, generally, seek a bigger place.
First, the Christian should take “the smaller place so you have quietness before God” (p. 130). This was quite intriguing to read. Schaeffer is clear that he is not advocating a kind of monasticism, as he writes, “There is no monasticism in Christianity” (p. 13). But Schaeffer may be on to something. If you are seeking largeness, you do in fact likely need to wait on the Lord and try to discern what in your heart seeks something bigger.
Secondly, Schaeffer writes, “If we deliberately and egotistically lay hold on leadership, wanting the drums to beat and the trumpets to blow, then we are not qualified for Christian leadership” (p. 13). Schaeffer here seems to equate seeking a larger place with a kind of desire for attention and fanfare and undue attention—certainly something any Christian should avoid. Schaeffer lived this out. Some of us lived closer to Schaeffer’s time, and we perhaps look longingly at the quaint chalet in the woods. But to start such a ministry in the 1950s would not have been a way to “win friends and influence people.” If anything, such a venture (L’Abri started in 1955) would certainly not have (at least immediately) drawn attention to oneself. A friend of mine visited L’Abri and shared with me that it is strikingly small. But God blessed Schaeffer and his ministry. He may not have been the technical scholar of other apologists and writers of his time, but God blessed his ministry, and many were both strengthened in the faith and many were brought to the faith through his work. God seemed to draw people to this Swiss chalet to be ministered to by a somewhat odd-looking fellow in lederhosen—not even a true European!
Although I am no Moses, I too felt intimidated when first starting out in ministry. And for analogous reasons. Growing up, and hearing much of the preaching I heard, I was given the impression that when preparing to preach one must mystically wait for “the message” that God has for the people. I was scared and too intimated. How do I get “the message.” The preachers I was hearing just seemed to receive the messages they preached.
It was not until after seminary when I was beginning doctoral study that I really began to grasp some basic things. For me, one of the key texts was Paul’s teaching on the gospel in Romans 1:16-17:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
I realized that the gospel itself is the power of God, and that power is what is necessary to bring someone to faith. As I worked things out and continued to study and learn, I realized that the gospel is the message of certain first-century events—central to this of course being the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). I realized that the message of those events is “the gospel” that must be shared. I began to learn that the preacher is a herald. Yes, we must work especially hard to communicate certain texts where “the gospel” might not seem to be front and center. Fair enough. But I had learned a valuable lesson. God has revealed Himself to us in Holy Writ, and the preacher’s preaching task is—in one sense—very straightforward.
Rather than wait on a mystical “message,” I was simply to explicate, explain, and teach what is found in Holy Writ. I should perhaps say I am most certainly not discouraging—in the least—prayer, asking the Lord for spiritual discernment, etc. We all must do that as we engage in ministry.
But I felt a world of unnecessary pressure fall off of my shoulders. I was—when preaching—engaging in an explication and teaching of Holy Scripture. Yes, I would use discernment, and I might let this or that particularly unique cultural moment inform my teaching and preaching. But I was no longer engaging in a guilt-inducing quest for “the message” I was to preach.
We have in recent times witnessed the death of Tim Keller. I, like many of you, I suspect, have learned much from Tim Keller. I had the opportunity to hear him preach once in an evangelistic effort when I was on sabbatical. But I wonder if he erred in his over-emphasis of “the city.” Certainly, God has his people—”every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9), and God shall bless every nation through the patriarch Abraham (Genesis 12:3).
But I wonder if there was something of an unhealthy romance concerning the city. This is just a hunch I have. If God calls you to go, by all means go. But what if God calls you to Toone, Tennessee? Or Willow, Alaska (about 2 hours north of my hometown of Anchorage). Or some other small town in your neck of the woods? Certainly, evangelism may take longer with the slower pace of life and the smaller population. But image-bearers of God live in these small towns. I have had two persons in somewhat recent years say to me, “I am not called to take care of the temple; I am here to bring people in.” Three cheers for a passion for evangelism. How can a Christian be otherwise? But this sentiment concerns me a bit. This kind of slogan initially has a kind of great spiritual zing to it. But even a little thought reveals how deeply mistaken it is.
The church (regenerate persons) is, in the new covenant, the people of God. One biblical image or metaphor for the church, or the people of God, is that we are the “temple”—the “temple of the holy spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Would not then pastoral ministry—whether in Toone, Tennessee, or in Willow, Alaska, or in Manhattan, be equally concerned—as a part of the ministry, in taking care of the temple? The location is not particularly important—in terms of worth or value. Pastoral ministry at least includes the task of shepherding a flock, of helping the temple be all that it can be, of engaging in that kind of ministry that will prepare the bride to be “holy and without blemish,” one day to be presented back to the bridegroom (Ephesians 5:25ff).
Now, to work with Paul’s metaphor—we are eager to add stones to the temple, we are eager to see the temple grow, for the “new man” to expand, to see more persons come to faith. But where that takes place is of little importance to us, really.
Schaeffer was right. There really are no “little people.” There are just people. There are not “little ministers” and there are not “little laypersons.” And there are certainly not “little places.”
May God be pleased that we serve faithfully wherever He has us. If he wants to move us on, so be it. And if he does so, we will trust that He has His own good reasons for doing so, both for our good and for His glory.