For many missionaries, the road to the mission field is a long one. From the time that they first decide to go, to the time that they actually go, it can be many years. There have been applications, candidate courses, church visits, theological studies, support raising, and a thousand other things to be done before they can finally leave.
But that day does come. And it is fantastic. You are finally there! After so much preparation and waiting, it is time to begin the ministry that you’ve been dreaming of.
First comes language study. After all the hurdles that it has taken to get to the mission field, it feels like once you get there, it is time to begin what you’ve always wanted to do. But you can’t. Alas, there is more waiting to do before you get good enough in the local language to say the things that you’ve so desperately wanted to say to the people that you’ve come to serve. But for the moment, you are in no condition to serve anyone because you don’t even know where to pay your electric bill or ask for simple items at the store. But that’s okay, because as you buckle down into language study, your ability to fend for yourself grows by leaps and bounds each day. Everything you are learning is immediately applicable to daily life. Numbers. Colors. Weather. Food. Directions. Months of the year. Past, present, and future tense. You are barely a few months into language study and you can do so much already. Okay, so you can’t share the Gospel yet but, you just wait! At this rate, I’ll be preaching in the streets a year from now.
But a funny thing happened on the way to fluency.
It is a year later and the traffic on the language learning super highway has slowed down to crawl. Sometimes it is bumper to bumper and it feels like you getting nowhere. This is what I like to call the “One Year Wall.” Some missionaries hit it early, before their first year. Others hit it later at the year and a half, or two year point. But whenever it happens, there are feelings of frustration and discouragement.
“I thought I’d be able to do much more by this point. I can still barely talk about the Gospel, and certainly couldn’t lead a Bible study. Will I EVER be able to speak this language?”
I’ve seen this experience repeated in the lives of various missionaries. Your experience may differ, but the one year wall is a reality for many new missionaries. All the waiting to get to the field, and then more waiting after arrival. And still, even after one to two years on the field, they have not yet “arrived” in the sense of being fluent enough to do the ministry that they came to do.
Is it hopeless? Should you throw in the towel and go home because you don’t “have what it takes?” No, probably not. It is possible to get through this. It is really common for language ability to grow exponentially when you first start out, but then to plateau after a while. You are still learning but it is not as noticeable. It may not “feel” like you are improving, but you are still going up. Keep at it. Keep plugging along. Keep learning and keep trying things that are too hard for you because those things will force your language to grow in ways that you may not have thought possible. You can get through this. By the grace of God, and a lot of perseverance, humility, and a sense of humor, you WILL arrive. You will be able to do what you came to do.
I have talked to missionaries who’ve hit the one year wall and felt discouraged, and wondered if there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The reason that I have written this post is for the sake of missionary candidates, missionaries new to the field, and missionaries who are losing the motivation to keep pushing on in language study. Having the right expectations is key in getting through the problems ahead. If you think, “I’ll just study language for a year and then start my ministry,” then you won’t be prepared for the one year wall. But if you know that the one year wall is coming, and that other have been there, done that, and pushed through it… then you are much better prepared to weather the storm ahead as well.