Schaeffer became an evangelical Christian as a teenager, but he went through a period of spiritual doubt in 1950-1951 and was forced to question his beliefs. By 1955, he was newly confident of his beliefs and had stronger faith, so he and his wife moved to a small house in Huemoz and established L'Abri, without assurance that it would be successful. Initially, few people visited, but as tapes of Schaeffer's lectures spread to England and other countries, the place became more popular.
In the 1970s, L'Abri would commonly have several dozen visitors (and sometimes as many as several hundred) on a given day. Visitors would stay for time periods ranging from a few days to several months. The L'Abri organization itself came to own and operate a number of homes and other buildings in Huemoz. Visitors who were admitted to L'Abri's educational program would have an opportunity to lodge in L'Abri's own buildings, typically with a communal work requirement as described below; other visitors would typically rent rooms or sleeping spaces in pensions offered by townspeople.
Schaeffer died in 1984, but the ministry he founded has continued to grow. Now, L'Abri has operations in a number of different countries, each staffed by workers who encourage visitors to study and consider their religious and philosophical beliefs. As of January 2006, L'Abri has residential "Study Centres" in the USA (in Minnesota and Massachusetts), Canada, South Korea and in Europe in England, the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as the original centre in Switzerland. It also has non-residential "Resource Centres", run by friends of the organisation, in Australia and Germany.
The "mode of operation" of L'Abri remains unusual amongst Christian organisations. A L'Abri centre is not a retreat, a commune, or a seminary, although it incorporates elements of all of these. Visitors are referred to as students, and personal study remains central to L'Abri's work, but there are no fixed "classes" or courses. Rather students (who may spend any time from one day to a whole "term," usually 2-3 months, at L'Abri) meet regularly with a member of staff to discuss the issues they wish to study, and are recommended resources from L'Abri's library of books and of recorded lectures and talks by L'Abri staff and others. A student's day is divided into "study time" and "work time." During "work time," a student will help with the necessary activities of the community—-cooking meals, cleaning, maintenance etc. This division is based on Schaeffer's constant emphasis that Christianity, and the work of L'Abri, were not only intellectual but had to incorporate all of life, and that a demonstration of "Christian Community" was as central to L'Abri's work as the intellectual demonstration that he believed could be made of the reasonableness and truthfulness of Christian belief.
The importance of Schaeffer's belief in the relevance of Christianity to all of life can be seen in many aspects of L'Abri. Even so, there is today less of an emphasis on serving philosophical skeptics and more of an emphasis on serving disaffected evangelicals. Students today come with very different questions, and they look at the politicized faith that Schaeffer helped create with suspicion.
The L'Abri day revolves around communal meals, often used as an opportunity for formal open discussion, and students are encouraged to pursue interests in art, music and literature, and to display the results to the community if they wish.
L'Abri staff regularly give lectures to the students, and at many L'Abri's some or all of these are open to the public.
L'Abri staff over the last 50 years have written a variety of books on different subjects, relating to their own areas of expertise. Published current and former L'Abri staff include not only Francis and Edith Schaeffer but also Greg Laughery, Jerram Barrs, Wade Bradshaw, Kevin Cook, Os Guinness, Dick and Mardi Keyes, Ranald Macaulay, Hans Rookmaaker and Richard Winter.
The L'Abri study centre in Rochester, Minnesota also organises bi-annual "L'Abri Conferences" in the USA and Canada at which L'Abri staff from across the world and other speakers supportive of the vision of L'Abri speak and lead seminars on a wide range of topics.
In 2005, a conference was held in St. Louis, Missouri to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organization, and over 1,000 attendees were present to hear speakers such as Os Guinness, Harold O. J. Brown, and Chuck Colson.