The Palo Alto Think And Pray Group* (1970)

by Lambert Dolphin


Think-and-Pray, or Core Groups, are vehicles for the rediscovery of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world. Such small groups also constitute ministering teams of Christians, who meet and pray together in order to be available together for the purposes and work of God in contemporary society. Think-and-Pray groups become expedient and revitalizing to the Church as a whole during periods of history when the Church becomes encumbered with traditions, ritual, organizational structure, or philosophies and methods derived from the past or from the world-system (cosmos).

One such Core Group, called a "Palo Alto Think-and-Pray Group," began about seven years ago [i.e., in 1963*] and was instituted at the suggestion of a leader (Doug Coe) of a visiting team from International Christian Leadership of Washington, DC, who conducted a series of civic spiritual leadership breakfasts in the City of Palo Alto. The ICL men had experienced God's enrichment of their lives through small groups of their own. As a result of this suggestion, three men in Palo Alto began to meet together weekly for a two-hour evening discussion characterized by openness to the Spirit of God and to one another.

This small group of three with occasional visitors continued for about a year before any significant purpose and direction emerged, and nearly disbanded at one point. Subsequently several others were added as vitality from God began to emerge, and as the team began to minister together as a group. Our Palo Alto group has made no attempt to be exclusive, but by virtue of its deep and continued association, eight or ten of the men grew together to form a kind of "inner" group, while another dozen men on the periphery came to be considered closely associated with this body. In spite of changes, diversification and seasons of fallowness, the group continues to meet with a sense of growing love, depth and increased spiritual effectiveness.

Many ideas and concepts have been discussed from time to time in our Palo Alto group. For example, it has been noted that important political and social movements, such as Communism or Nazism began with the vision of a small inner core of men who were deeply committed to one another. Only a tiny handful of men operating together in a close unity are necessary to effect major changes in civilization, even without reference to God. What then could a group of Christians accomplish gathered together around the person of Jesus Christ?

It was also observed that our Lord Jesus Christ spent three years eating, sleeping and living in close fellowship with a dozen men while He spoke to large crowds and multitudes, spent time with personal friends and individuals during His travels, and had an important public ministry. He was heavily occupied for approximately three years in teaching, sharing, and becoming personally acquainted with His disciples; since they traveled together and lived together, there were few areas of their lives which could be kept hidden from one another or from Jesus, their leader. Christ's strategic plan for the coming period of history involved His disciples in a vital way.

Subsequent discussions in our Palo Alto Core Group called attention to the fact that every Christian, according to Romans 12,1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, has one or more spiritual gifts given at the time of his conversion by the Spirit of God. Yet few Christians know their spiritual gifts or are confident in the exercise of the gifts they have. A number of interesting sessions of the Core Group have been devoted to helping one another find spiritual gifts, and it has come as a great reward to many members of the group to determine what their specific gifts are in the Body of Christ. This has helped the individual members of the group feel at home with one another, and in the Church at large. One man, content to be an evangelist, can now be content to let another man be a pastor-teacher, and a third is free to exercise his gift of encouragement or exhortation, and so on.

Inconspicuous gifts such as discernment of spirits, helps, or wisdom we discovered in our discussions were very valuable and important to the functioning of the whole body. Furthermore our deliberations brought out the fact that one man's strong point often corresponded with another man's weaknesses and that by working together as a team in a body, we could present a very united, coherent witness to the audiences we wished to speak to.

Early in the history of our Palo Alto Think-and-Pray Group, we realized it was important to perform some useful service in the world, recognizing that we were all as individuals fairly self-centered. We saw that groups also could become self-centered, and we learned to guard against becoming a lonely hearts' club, a professional speakers' bureau, a group therapy session, or a church social club. We learned that thinking and praying and discussing were important to discovering the strategy of the Spirit of God in our ministry. In the words of our Lord, "Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven, for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

We soon discovered that agreeing together subject to the Lordship and guidance of Jesus Christ was not an easy task, but that once a point of agreement was reached and unanimity existed in the group, we could be absolutely certain of God's will for us, and so we could launch forth vigorously by faith.

Again and again we have observed the promise of this Scripture proved in experience. We have seen an important check and balance system operating when every member of the Body becomes important and significant in determining the mind of Christ for the group. For example, in one situation the Core Group agreed unanimously to take a team trip to Europe, but just prior to departure all the carefully laid plans and meetings in Europe were canceled because of one problem or another overseas. Yet when it was realized by the group that unanimity had led us thus far, we went ahead with the trip, only to discover to our surprise and amazement God had a far more profitable and worthwhile expedition in Europe than that originally conceived by our own best-laid human plans.

Our Palo Alto Think-and-Pray Group encompasses men from several different denominations and from several different nationalities. A more diverse cultural and sociological group could hardly be imagined. Communication, rapport and understanding have not come easily. Sometimes tempers have flared, and the discussion became lively and heated temporarily as the air was cleared of suspicions, mistrust or secret prejudice against one another.

In the course of six or seven years, as members of this group we can say we have a genuine love and lasting concern for one another, but we can also honestly admit that we have grown to be more different and diversified as a result of our thinking, praying, and traveling together. Our two-hour, weekly meetings are often crammed with reports, urgent prayer requests and important concerns which sometimes go unshared because of time.

Our Palo Alto Think-and-Pray Group has in the past few years taken teams to Europe on two occasions, to Latin America on three or four occasions, to several American cities for spiritual emphasis programs, and to 16 college campuses for a week each. Ministering as a team has done much to unite the group, and also to bring into close union with Christ outside laymen and pastors who have not yet caught the vision of the Church as the organic Body described in the New Testament.

A closely-knit Core Group is especially valuable ministering on a college campus. One member of the team may offend a certain part of the student body and faculty, but another member of the team can usually correct any discrepancies and present the Christian message in a slightly different perspective. By the time several members of the team have been heard from, a unified and consistent picture of God at work usually emerges.

It has been one of our great discoveries to realize that Jesus Christ expresses Himself in the world today through a Body, and not necessarily only through individual members of the Body as has been traditionally supposed. It is important not only for non-Christians but for Christians as well to see the life of Jesus Christ in a group or microcosm of the Body of Christ, particularly in an age when the Church organization has made distinctions between clergy and laity, between professionally trained ministers and the non-participating flock of God. Also, the insights gained on ministering trips by a total team make it possible to influence a city or a campus very greatly through united, intelligent prayers, or through reporting letters and suggestions to those who have invited us.

Individual members of our Palo Alto Think-and-Pray Group have commented how valuable are the checks and balances in the group, because no Christian sees himself clearly without the help of other members of the Body, who act as a mirror. Only in a climate of trust, honesty and long-term love can a man face honest criticisms and exposure of his faults and shortcomings which are obvious to others. Only among a group of closely united friends can a Christian express his deepest fears, anxieties and share special problems and needs in a climate of trust and love.

One danger in a small group is of course that of meddling, poking, prying, interfering with the privacy of another's life, fault-finding or picking fleas; which can easily cripple the effectiveness of the group. Yet few Christians have friends with whom they can share their deepest concern, and one of the great strengths of our Think-and-Pray Group has been the warm and transparent climate in which problems can be discussed with total acceptance of one another by all concerned.

As God has given the group additional responsibility, we have had to realize the importance of ministering creatively, of expanding our range of activities, of not resting on past laurels, and of the need for us to train others in the things we've learned together.

From time to time all-day-Saturday Think-and-Pray sessions have been planned at a cabin on the beach or in a local home. These sessions have always been very valuable and generally the day is spent in sharing around the room, on an individual and personal basis one by one, followed by group prayer for the person concerned. Long term changes and new directions frequently result from these day-long evaluation sessions. All day sessions can be quite threatening to individuals and we've learned over the years how vulnerable we are to one another and how important therefore is the careful exercise of tact, discretion, wisdom and love in our group relationships.

Traditionally, our Palo Alto Think-and-Pray Group meetings on Tuesday night from 7:00 to 9:00 have featured a minimum of organizational structure. Often a rotating chairman is appointed for a month at a time. The chairman can elect to open in prayer, lead a Bible study, present a devotional message, or simply move on to the evening's discussion. Often on a 3 x 5 card the chairman will list topics to be considered and will monitor the time somewhat to make sure important priority items are discussed and adequate time remains for prayer. It is all too easy for prayer to be crowded to the very end of the meeting, and some meetings have been devoted entirely to prayer, and very profitably so. Usually three-quarters of the meeting is devoted to discussion and perhaps one quarter to prayer.

The discussion consists usually of reports of God's activity in the lives of individuals, discussion of correspondence with friends, or reports from visitors to the Core Group. Sometimes the entire evening will be given to one member who may be facing a change of jobs, family conflicts or unusual ministering opportunities. At times the session is given to presentation of particular topics, such as family break-down problems, opportunities for the Gospel in other cities or countries, discussions of national or world economic or social problems, or discussion and prayer for local churches or other Christian bodies at home or abroad.

The local church in America often exhibits a defensive, rather than offensive posture toward the world, and also often lags months or years behind current problems. On the other hand a small core group can get immediately involved in contemporary events. For example, our Palo Alto Group got involved in the Haight-Ashbury drug scene within weeks of its development in the summer of 1967. One of our members and his wife moved directly to the area as a Christian worker. His reports on the new subculture were very informative, and effective, intelligent prayer could be immediately directed toward the complex problems of the Haight during its six-month lifetime.

Visitors are always welcomed at our Core Group but a close and intimate relationship requires regular attendance and participation. At times individuals have come to the Core Group for one or more meetings, but consciously or unconsciously interfered with the progress of the group. Such individuals sometimes need to be spoken to outside the group, but never is anyone asked to leave, and every attempt is made to keep the Think-and-Pray Group from becoming exclusive, ingrown, or cliquish. As to who is a member of our group, we would say, "anyone who does God's will and wants to be with us."

Our Palo Alto Think-and-Pray Group has not attempted in any sense to supersede, by-pass or neglect the local church. In fact, several of us are active Sunday school teachers, pastors, or Christian workers. As a result of our Core Group interactions we have gained a deepening desire to awaken local churches to the realization that they are parts of the Body of Christ charged with the responsibility of constituting the "secret government" of a community and of the planet Earth.

Recognizing the divisions in Christendom, we have found it very valuable to discuss together our differences, reactions to various churches and organizations and our place in the universal Body of Christ in a climate of openness and honesty. Our small group sessions have joined us in close loyalty to the local churches rather than dividing us from them. But we have been amazed at the diversity, variety and contrast God is building into His holy, catholic Church. Having learned how the Body of Christ operates as an organism from our group interaction, we tend to respect other Christian relationships whether church gatherings or Body Life relationships. Others may or may not be aware of the basic character of the true church.

As to the internal workings of the group, each member is committed to the Lordship and authority of Jesus Christ, to the authority of the Scriptures and to open and honest discussion with one another in a climate of acceptance, trust and love. We have committed ourselves to reliance upon the Spirit of God in all our undertakings and to the renunciation of the self-effort which characterizes the flesh. We recognized the Christian ministry consists of ministering the Word of God in the world, but also of serving one's fellow human beings, and that a Core Group needs at all times to maintain some outgoing ministry in word and deed in the community around us. We have sought to recognize that the problems many of us have as Christians are several generations deep and that historic distortions in Western Christianity down through the centuries have taken us quite far from the New Testament norm of church life.

Without negating any existing work of God in the community, we have attempted to help individuals or groups rediscover the life of the Lord Jesus as He manifests Himself in the midst of committed groups of Christians who are open to Him and to one another. In a sense the Protestant church has had few self-evaluation sessions since the Reformation and the same can be said of many individual Christians, who though perhaps following God to the best of their abilities, nevertheless have not become the whole and complete persons God wishes them to be.

The small Core Group operating on New Testament principles is a vital means of helping individuals come to the fulfillment of their own lives in Jesus Christ. As the Scripture says of Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, "Both he who sanctifies (makes whole), and those who are sanctified (made whole) have all one Body. Therefore, he is not ashamed to call us brothers." It is in the mystery of the incarnation that Jesus Christ dwelling in the midst of His Church transforms our humanity by the impartation of His own divine life to us, whenever a climate of openness to Him, reliance on the Scriptures and being subject to His Lordship exists.

The dangers of becoming a self-perpetuating institution have frequently come to our minds. Even Jesus Christ did not band His disciples together into a permanent organization in Jerusalem, rather they were scattered to the corners of the earth. When Jesus promised, "Lo I am with you even to the end of the age," 3 it was after He had ordered them to spread His gospel to the ends of the earth. Members of our group affirm that greatest growth of the group in the past has usually occurred when we were away from home our group affirm that greatest growth of the group in the past has usually occurred when we were away from home ministering together.

When a group begins to ask, "What's wrong with our group, and why can't we keep it going," or, "Let's get Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel and see what that will do for us," it has already lost sight of the treasure of Christ and is worrying - about the earthen vessel instead. Core Groups can easily become extensions of oneself and therefore a group (as also the individual members) must die to itself and its own ends in order to live: "Unless a corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit."

A group is in trouble when it looks reverently at the chair where so-and-so used to sit, when members derive their identity and purpose from the group rather than from a Sovereign Lord, or when the group thinks fixed power and authority have somehow become permanently resident in the midst of its weekly august deliberations. Jesus told a group of lawyers, "Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers murdered. " S Such are a few of the dangers of institutionalizing what God wishes to be living, vital, growing organic relationships in the Body of Christ.

In advising others about such groups, we recommend that they begin with two or three who have like-minded attitudes, affinity for one another, and a willingness to be available to Jesus Christ (unconditionally), expecting God to direct and to act. Let God guide the activities, topics of discussion and strategy for the group's activities. We have found the usefulness and effectiveness of a group begins to diminish after the number reaches six or eight. It is important to meet regularly and patiently during the formative months, expecting God to lead. We have also recognized the group needs to be reminded repeatedly of its basic operating principles and reason for existence. Again and again in our exciting group we have observed the effectiveness and spiritual leverage which comes when Christians work together subject to Jesus Christ. As Joshua says, "one shall chase a thousand; two shall chase ten thousand."

* The Palo Alto Think and Pray Group was in existence from about 1963 to 1972. The regular members included Ray Stedman, Dick Hillis, Gerhard Dirks, Al Fabrizio, Sven Jensen, John Hoyte, Horace Bissel, Phil Compton, Carl Gallivan and Lambert Dolphin.

The Palo Alto Think And Pray Group (1970)

by Lambert Dolphin
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