Are you in your twenties or thirties on the verge of a quarter-life crisis? Are you tired of touristy vacation experiences and looking for something different? If you are a Christian (or interested in Christianity)-----a place called L'Abri might be for you.
I want to give you 4 reasons why you should consider visiting a L’Abri community. I like to call it summer camp for burnt-out Christian adults. While my late twenties and thirties have been fulfilling, the past 10-12 years have been incredibly draining. For a few years now I’ve been looking for a place to refocus and recharge. And now I want to let my friends know about this in hopes they might join me in visiting this place. I really don't want this to sound like an advertising pitch, but I think it may be unavoidable.
In 2019 I visited two different branches of L'Abri Fellowship: one south of London (Greatham) and another east of Boston (Southborugh). I'd heard about L'Abri when I was in college after reading a book by its founder Francis Schaeffer, who used art, history and literature to affirm the truths found in Christianity. While I enjoyed his books, I never actually visited one of the communities he and his wife helped create in the 1960s and 1970s. While visiting friends in Scotland this past summer, I decided to make a solo trip down to the English L'Abri to see if this place still lived up to the hype of what I imagined as a functional Christian commune.
My first experience in Greatham, England was incredible when I stayed in an old mansion that houses nearly 20-25 people. There I attended lectures, chapel services, dinners, prayer times and one on one counseling sessions. After my three-day stay there, I was convinced I had a huge mistake. I should have booked a 2-week stay. When I returned to America later that month, I resolved to visit the American L’Abri in Boston as soon as possible. In October 2019, I visited the L’Abri outside of Boston. I thought “Perhaps the English L'Abri was unique. I seriously doubt the American L’Abri could match the hospitality and depth of thought that I saw in the UK." Thankfully, I was wrong. The Boston L’Abri was very different but consistently practiced the same Christian hospitality, depth of discussions and customs as the English branch. This is one of those situations where I am very happy to be wrong.
What kind of people visit L'Abri? From what I knew about L’Abri, it had a unique mix of intellectual engagement along with hospitality. Here's a quote from the L’Abri website about what kinds of people visit the community:
“A wide variety of people come to stay with us, for many different reasons, from a variety of backgrounds, world-views, ages and occupations. Some do not see themselves as Christians and come looking for a place where their questions will be taken seriously. Many people come to address living as Christians in the modern world. Every guest brings to L'Abri their own unique life, thoughts, interests and questions.”
I found that the age range for guests at L’Abri is between 18-40 years old. I initially thought I’d be a little old to be walking into the English L’Abri. Yet when I arrived, I was happy to meet a family of four, multiple people in their late 20s and 30's and multiple couples staying at L’Abri.
Here are 4 reasons why you should visit L’Abri:
Reason 1: You will meet Christians from all walks of life and different parts of the world.
When I stayed at the English L’Abri, I stayed in a large room with bunk-beds along with 8 other guys from around the world. It is the same set up as many hostels where you do not get your own room, but share a room with other people opening up lots of conversation and interaction. The price for staying was 30 pounds per night, including all three meals.
Unlike most hostels I’ve visited, you eat all three meals together with others staying there. On my last night there, I sat at a table with a British woman, a guy from Sweden, a guy from New Zealand, a college student from Canada and a woman from Texas. All of the people that were sitting at the table were Christians and this opened up a good conversation about faith and culture. The Canadian college student asked me “What do you know about Canadian history?” And I said “Nothing.” The woman from London said “Classic American, where they are the center of the story.” I had to seriously defend Americans’ knowledge of history to the British woman. It seems British people like to insult you in order to provoke a conversation, so I had to explain the American view of history. Americans never study anything about Canadian history and so I had no answer for the Canadian.
This was one of many friendly debates at dinner, but afterward were often followed up by a question of “What are you studying here?” Every person at L’Abri is on a self-directed study of a specific question about God or the world. These side conversations reminded me that there were many other Christians from across the world on the same journey as myself. That night at the dinner table I was reminded that there are many Christians seeking to know God across Europe.
I do not really care about "seeing all the sights" of London unless I get a chance to actually talk to a British person. Seeing the tourist attractions of another country should always be secondary to actually meet people who live in England. Yet the design of L'Abri makes it possible to engage in discussion and daily meals with people from around the world. I recommend this for anyone traveling alone.
Reason 2: Your questions and thoughts about the Christian faith will be taken seriously.
L’Abri is designed for people to ask questions and have discussions. The culture at L’Abri presents the Christian faith as a life-long journey where people ask questions throughout their life rather than “arriving." There are two ways that these discussions happen: lunch discussions and one on one mentoring.
Lunch is designed to revolve around one question that a guest asks. There is a L’Abri worker (who is often theologically trained) who helps facilitate the discussion, but the guests are the people who ask the question. Once a guest asks a question, the conversation generally has to stay on that topic for an entire hour. For instance, I arrived at lunchtime at the English L’Abri on a Sunday afternoon. So I walked right into one of these lunch discussions. A woman in her thirties was a therapist looking for perspective on difficult situations she encounters at her job. The question she asked was:
“As a Christian, what should I tell a woman who is in an abusive relationship? When should I tell them to leave their husband if the situation gets violent? How would I encourage the couple to reconcile? I don’t want to encourage divorce or separation. But I can’t condone a woman who is in a dangerous situation. Where’s the balance?”
I sat there for an hour listening to the conversation of those at my table attempting to help her think through this difficult question that she faces as a therapist.
Since we must stay on this one question for the entire hour of lunch, this allows the person asking the question to be taken seriously. One of the weaknesses of evangelical Christianity (at least in the churches I’ve attended in my life) is creating a place for Q &A. Typically there is open discussion at weekly Bible studies, but oftentimes these can be rushed considering time constraints. The focused nature of L’Abri lunchtime discussion allows for conversation and also a sense of focus that takes on difficult questions.
The second way that L’Abri culture helps to take people seriously is by having one on one sessions with L’Abri staff. If you have a question, you can request to meet up and ask your question. I arrived with this question: "As Christians should we expected to call one place "home?" The New Testament calls Christians "pilgrims." Yet does that mean we should strive to settle down in one place for our entire life? What do we do with the innate longing to find a place where we belong? Should we expect to belong to multiple places?"
For this question, I met with a guy named Joel who was on the L'Abri staff. Joel gave me some suggested reading and also suggested some digital lectures. Each L'Abri branch has a large collection of theological works that the staff often is able to suggest. While I did read and listen to Joel's recommendations, I think that one of the strengths of my experience was how down to earth the workers were in answering questions in a sincere way. There was no superiority or intellectual posturing. My experiences both in the lunch discussions and one on one sessions reflected Christian humility.
Reason 3: Christian hospitality is high on their priority list.
I try not to get into casual conversations with authority figures. I assume they are too busy for small talk expecting they are likely in a hurry to get back to their office where the real work happens. I don’t want to be a distraction.
When I stayed at the Boston L'Abri, I had the chance to meet its founder Dick Keyes on my 2nd day there. Dick established the first American L’Abri in the early 1980s after studying under Francis and Edith Schaffer (the couple who created the first branch in Europe). I’d found one of Dick’s books in the L’Abri library titled "Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion." When I saw him at breakfast one morning, I naturally wanted to go introduce myself in the most efficient way possible. I wanted to tell him that I was enjoying his book then immediately end the conversation so I wouldn’t bother him. The conversation did not go as planned. Dick was interested in asking me about North Carolina and my job as a teacher. We had a good conversation. He said, “if you are enjoying the book I’d be happy to meet up with you tomorrow and talk about cynicism in America.” I agreed to meet up despite being somewhat anxious about annoying an authority figure.
The next day, Dick invited me to have a chat in the cabin on L’Abri property. I asked him questions about what causes cynicism. He shared his own struggle with being a pessimist. I also asked him how he created this amazing culture at L’Abri in the 1980s that is still thriving today. He told me parts of his own story explaining he’d become a Christian after visiting a L’Abri in Switzerland.
Frankly, I did want to ask Dick Keyes questions. I like asking questions. And he was not annoyed by my questions. I was shocked at how a man who had written a book debunking cynicism could be so kind and approachable.
Showing the love of Christ wasn’t delegated as “grunt work” within this organization. Any organization or church whose founder is relaxed enough to have a long conversation with an outsider like me understands what Christian hospitality is.
Reason 4: The customs of L’Abri make it feel like you are living in 1940’s England.
Earlier this summer my friend Barrie described being at L’Abri as “living an old-timey lifestyle.” She summed it up well. The unique culture of L’Abri is not an accident. Here’s a statement regarding technology at each house:
Due to the prevalence of media and technology in all parts of life, we at L’Abri have felt the need to rethink the presence of laptop computers and devices in the midst of our shared life together. While these technologies are very useful, they can also be conscious (or unconscious!) distractions from engagement in community life. . .Our hope is that we can experience a different way of being together: one that encourages the goodness of being human, sharing our lives and ideas, growing, learning, being creative, and having fun together.
You are asked to leave your Smartphone and laptops in your room. Yet, as we all know, if you cut out the habit of looking at a screen, you need to replace it with another habit. The staff at L’Abri have this covered in terms of creating a unique culture. Here’s a list of customs that fill the day that “encourages the goodness of being human” and building a communal culture:
1.) All 3 meals are served together all at once with other guests and staff. These meals are cooked by the staff and guests are encouraged to help wash dishes.
2.) In the afternoon there is “tea-time.” This is a 30-minute break where tea is served and conversation happens. This is part of English culture to have tea in the same way Americans used to have smoke breaks before we realized cigarettes were killing us. Americans need to adopt this custom as a form of a mid-day conversational break from work.
3.) Every guest is expected to work for 2 hours a day. Considering the low cost of staying at L’Abri ($35 per night), part of the deal is that you work for a few hours. Some people help cook dinner, others clean bathrooms and some work on special projects. I was asked to bush-hog a field of brush on one day. The 2nd day I was asked to mow the lawn. This was one of the most satisfying moments while staying at the Boston L’Abri because I got to knock out some chores that some of the staff didn’t have time to do. I never knew that doing physical labor could be fun on a vacation.
4.) It is a common practice to read stories aloud after dinner at night. My first night at L’Abri I saw a group of staff and guests read an hour of C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe” out loud. Each person was assigned a character and they attempted to re-enact the part.
Staying at a L’Abri really focused your attention on the people around you. The individuals around you become worth your time and energy. This, in many ways, sort of takes the individual out of the picture, so everyone is doing things as a team and can give you an impression of what life might have been like not only before television and Smartphones but also when life was governed by traditions of family or communal culture rather than the individual’s own desires to choose whatever he or she wanted at the moment.
If you are looking for a place to escape from the world and refocus on God for a short time, this is a place to check out. The people are hospitable, intelligent and love Christ. They’ve created a peaceful place to separate yourself from the chaotic culture we’ve created in the West to think about what it means to be a Christian in the modern world. After my time at L’Abri, I realized that I sometimes need more than a vacation in a beautiful mountainside or energetic cultural experience in a new city. What if vacation looks more like time reflecting on God in a community with others on the same journey?