In 2015, the Palo Alto Church of Christ faced a dilemma. Once a robust congregation — with 200 members at its peak in 1968 — by 2015, membership had dwindled to roughly 25. The church still owned its 1.13 acres of land at 3373 Middlefield Road but had no one to fill its pews.
During this time, across town, the Highway Community in Palo Alto was rapidly growing and had many younger families that met weekly at Palo Alto High School's Haymarket Theatre. But that church lacked the funds to buy a permanent home.
Today, four years later, the Church of Christ campus is once again filled with children, parents and the elderly, following the merger of the two religious communities into a new congregation called Highway Palo Alto Community of Christ.
To commemorate the 60-year history of Palo Alto Church of Christ, the group is hosting a celebration at its Middlefield Road building on Saturday, Aug. 17, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event will feature a potluck, historical exhibits and a chance for attendees to share their experiences at the church.
"This is a celebration of the closing and simultaneous rebirth of a church," said Howard Peters, a longtime member of the Church of Christ. "Some former Church of Christ members will return for the event from Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Virginia."
Among the most significant milestones in the merger, Peters said, was the transfer of the property, valued at $10 million, last year.
"We all agreed that we wanted the church property to continue to be used for religious purposes — if possible," Peters said. "The Church of Christ board of directors did not want to remain responsible for the church property, and Highway, a young organization, agreed to accept it but did not have anywhere close to $10 million. We, as the board of directors, felt that we wanted to be as accommodating as possible."
According to Dean Smith, the minister at Highway Community, mergers of churches have become increasingly more common and sometimes happens when a church is in need of funding.
"Sometimes, a congregation will have trouble with finances and will allow another church that is looking for a place to pay and use its facilities. In some situations, the newer congregations would get larger and slowly displace the original one. Our case is slightly different, but Highway Community became the dominant church but some accommodations were still made," Smith said.
He noted that although the two churches shared similar beliefs, there were some noticeable cultural differences between them that needed to be discussed. One difference was that Church of Christ sang purely acapella during worship while Highway Community used an alternative rock band.
"So the question was whether or not we could bring instruments," Smith said. "We learned that for them, being non-instrumental was actually a tradition rather than a doctrine."
According to Peters, after initial talks with Smith about the possibility of a merger, the two churches began hosting joint services and started cultivating friendships. As a retired attorney, Peters was heavily involved in many of the legal decisions with the merger. Among the final responsibilities: this year, the board of directors of the Church of Christ legally dissolved.
Smith called the merger mutually beneficial, explaining that without it, it would be likely that the Church of Christ would have died out.
"The impact of this merger is that the Church of Christ can still go on as a community," Smith said. "We have tremendous respect for the Church of Christ. I think that they have also enjoyed the life we have brought in with the younger generation."