Sixty years after a Churches of Christ missions team first went to Guatemala, two of its pioneering missionaries died within one week of each other. Ann Roberts Hill died in Abilene, Texas, on September 12 at the age of 87. Dan Coker died in Tyler, Texas, on September 18 at the age of 82.
Part of a boom in international missions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hill and Coker helped transform the Churches of Christ’s approach to spreading the gospel abroad. They launched some of the denomination’s earliest congregations in Latin America and modeled a new team approach to missions.
As their friends and colleagues reflected on their legacy, however, they also mourned the passing of an age of missions.
“I just have a fear that this is it,” Jim Frazier, a longtime friend of Hill and Coker and a retired Churches of Christ missionary, told Christianity Today. “This generation, the younger generation, missions is not their thing. They don’t go.”
Telltale signs of change
The Churches of Christ don’t have a denominational board to keep track of missionary numbers, but there are telltale signs of the change.
Great Cities Missions, a group that trains and supports Churches of Christ missionaries to Latin America, has not been able to recruit a North American team in the last few years. A series of annual lectures on Latin American missions—run by Frazier, Coker, and fellow missionary Howard Norton—ended in 2018 because of sharply declining interest. A foundation that supports Churches of Christ missionaries has seen requests for funding drop by more than half in the last decade.
The trends within their denomination, which numbers nearly 12,000 congregations in the US, seem to reflect a bigger shift in American evangelicalism.
A recent Barna study found that in the US, nearly half of churchgoing Christians in their 20s and 30s believe it is wrong to evangelize. Those who still feel the call are more likely to do social justice work or focus their efforts domestically.
“Evangelism now, it’s like a dirty word,” said Scott Emery, a director at Great Cities Missions. “There’s a resistance to missions, at least the kind of missions we do. You pair that with other issues, like economic pressures and the debt young people have coming out of college, missions definitely doesn’t have the fervor that it did.”
Experts say that short trips focused on concrete projects, such as building a house or painting a school, are still quite popular. But there is less and less interest in the kind of work Hill and Coker did: evangelism, church planting, and discipleship.
“I’m being very cynical, but I think this is the age of short-term missions,” said Gailyn Van Rheenen, who spent 14 years church planting in Africa before teaching missions and evangelism at Abilene Christian University for more than 17 years. “We’re not learning languages and cultures. We’re not settling in to be part of the cultures.”
Hill and Coker’s friends and colleagues say short-term missions can be a good thing, but they worry those projects don’t show the same commitment or have the same impact as traditional missions work.
“Actually going and confronting people with Jesus—you do that knowing the language and knowing the culture and getting to know them as people. And you walk beside them. That doesn’t happen in a two-week campaign,” said Gary Sorrell, a retired Churches of Christ missionary to Brazil. “I think there’s something we have lost.”
In its October 2019 cover story, CT wrote about how the approaches to short-term mission trips are evolving so much that it’s launched a new conversation on what kind of travel and activity can be considered missional in the first place.
Hill, Coker, and the other Churches of Christ missionaries in the 1960s, viewed learning the language and culture as the foundation of mission work. The Guatemala team was formed at Abilene Christian College (now University), partly at the prompting of the modern language professors.
A time of missionary fervor
Hill was born in Clarksburg, Tennessee, in 1932. Her father was Churches of Christ minister who preached from Tennessee to Texas. Coker was also a preacher’s kid. He was born in Anson, Texas, in 1936, and grew up outside of Tucson, Arizona, not far from the US-Mexico border. Both went to Abilene for college.
Their cohort, growing up during World War II, was more globally minded than the generation before. They had also been exposed to Hispanic cultures in the Southwest and were increasingly critical of segregation. They felt, in the moment, a great optimism about what they would be able to do for Christ.
Howard Norton, a contemporary at Abilene, remembers students getting excited about a special Wednesday night mission study organized by language professors.
“There was a little bit of a ferment going on there, created by those teachers and those backgrounds,” Norton told CT. “We just thought, we want to go somewhere and do good.”
Ann married Jerry Hill, another Abilene student, and the newlyweds started planning to go to Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala. They were soon joined by another young couple, Coker and his wife Elise. The team model was new for the Churches of Christ, and it changed how other Abilene students imagined missions.
The Hills would come back from support-raising to meet with the Cokers and others thinking about becoming missionaries to Latin America. They would talk about how they didn’t want to be lone cowboys on the mission field, but to go in groups, like the first Christians in the book of Acts.
“One of the biggest contributions that the Guatemala team made was they stuck together,” Norton said. “The hardest thing on the mission field is getting along with your fellow missionaries. There were lots of people telling us it wouldn’t work to go as a group.”
The Hills reached Guatemala in 1959 and the Cokers followed them. A few years later, a group of 16 couples and young families from Abilene all went to Brazil together. Norton was with them.
“That was kind of the beginning,” said Sorrell. “The Brazil group created a huge amount of press across the Churches of Christ. It got lots of people’s attention, and a lot of people saw what they were doing in South America.”
That none should perish
The Hills and Cokers helped establish the Churches of Christ in Guatemala. There are now more than 40,000 people in Guatemala who are part of the Churches of Christ. The Cokers then went to Honduras in 1969 and started the first Church of Christ there. Today, there are 15 Churches of Christ in Honduras. Coker also worked in Mexico City, Mexico; Montevideo, Uruguay; and Toluca, Mexico, and helped start several institutes to train missionaries. He then returned to Abilene to teach missions to a new generation.
Van Rheenen, who taught alongside Coker, said Coker became the dean of Latin American missions. “For the Churches of Christ,” Van Rheenen said, “he knew more about Latin American missions than anyone else. He did seminars. He mentored people. He was a man of great wisdom.”
Royce Money, a former president of the university, said Coker was especially passionate about building teams and always emphasized importance of learning the language and the culture.
In a lecture in the late 1980s, Coker explained that he believed it was critical for the Churches of Christ in North America to lose their “first world innocence,” which he called “the innocence of thinking that things in the world are really better than they appear in the media.” The church can become captive to wealth and privilege, and when it does, he said, it stops sending out missionaries.
“Missions do enjoy first place on some church programs—they are the first to be cancelled when financial reversals hit us,” Coker said. “The Church of Christ goes out and gives all men a chance to repent because God is not willing that any of them should perish. If we lose that perspective, if we lose that compassion, I would suggest that we have lost it all.”