The missionary task requires understandable communication of the gospel. Depending on the context and the complexity of the language where they are serving, missionaries may work for months or years to communicate the gospel clearly in their target country. But what happens when that missionary has been working in one context for years, and the Lord calls them to a new context with a new language? The task begins all over again, accompanied by the same challenges as before, along with some new and surprising difficulties.
When starting again in a new context, missionaries may experience disorientation and frustration, especially if they did not plan their relocation. Churches supporting missionaries who have recently moved to a new context also experience a new set of challenges as they change their focus to a different part of the world. Both missionaries and their supporting churches have spent years learning about the culture and praying for the people. Both have invested time and emotion into learning, loving, and working in a particular cross-cultural context. Now the process begins all over again.
As missionaries and churches navigate this transition, here is some encouragement and a couple of tips for each group.
Starting over might feel like taking a step backward, but it is actually a step forward into the new assignment our Lord has given you.
Encouragement and Tips for the Missionary
First and foremost, no matter how difficult the new language may be, remind yourself that you can do this! You have already learned a new language once. Starting over might feel like taking a step backward, but it is actually a step forward into the new assignment our Lord has given you. Remember what you have already learned about language and the missionary task. More importantly, remember how you learned. The grammar, syntax, and vocabulary are different, but the process of learning a language will be largely the same.
Tip #1: Remember to Laugh
Learning a new language is one of the most humbling activities for an adult. Stepping back into the role of language learner after working so hard to communicate the beauty of the gospel in another language is no less humbling. You are going to make mistakes. Some of your mistakes might be familiar—mixing up words, confusing syntax, using grammatical constructs incorrectly, etc. Other mistakes might be new, such as pulling words from your previously learned language when you’re trying to communicate in the new language.
When these mixups occur, remind yourself to laugh. Remember all the funny stories from your first language learning experience. I once asked a woman how many thieves she had (instead of sons). I was at a restaurant when a friend accidentally asked to have a prostitute sent to the table instead of a waiter (thankfully context prevailed, and a waiter showed up!). These mistakes might be embarrassing in the moment, but we must remember to laugh at ourselves and with others when we make them.
Tip #2: Learn How to Crawl Again
Someone accustomed to walking and running rarely has the need to crawl. Crawling is an incredibly slow means of getting from one point to another, and no one gets very far doing it. However, even the fastest runner does not sprint in the dark if they do not know the terrain. They might crawl, feeling their way forward so they can avoid unseen obstacles.
As you begin the process of learning another language, you are in unfamiliar terrain. You will not be sharing the gospel fluently in your first week or month. You will be learning how to say, “My name is . . .” and “I am from . . .” Even though you may wish to run ahead, you will need to take the time to build a solid foundation for learning the new language. Crawl now so you can run again in time.
Encouragement and Tips for Churches
Churches also have an important role to play in this process as you care well for your missionaries. If you are a pastor, then chances are you have experienced moving from one ministry context to another. That move is difficult even without having to learn a new language. You have a frame of reference for what the missionary is going through, so you already know how to begin praying for them.
Tip #1: Persevere in Prayer
The importance of specific prayer for missionaries cannot be overstated. Over a century ago, Andrew Murray wrote, “Prayer, more prayer, much prayer, very special prayer, in the first place, for the work to be done in our home Churches on behalf of foreign missions, is indeed the one great need of the day” (The Key to the Missionary Problem, p.94). While you may verbally acknowledge the need to pray for your missionaries, it becomes much harder in practice when the prayer request is the same month after month: “Pray for my language study.”
Please understand that this request is not filler for a newsletter but often a true plea for help. Missionaries repeat this request because they still need your prayers! Churches do not see the daily struggles for basic communication and the literal tears that sometimes come during language study. Your prayers encourage and strengthen your missionaries during the hard days of language learning.
While you may verbally acknowledge the need to pray for your missionaries, it becomes much harder in practice when the prayer request is the same month after month: “Pray for my language study.”
Tip #2: Be a Friend and a Pastor
Few missionaries broadly share the emotional struggles of going back into language learning after years on the field. During these difficult days, remember that missionaries need friends and pastors also, especially if they have few or no other teammates around them. Schedule a call with missionaries during their language-learning phase. Use these opportunities to be a friend and a pastor to them. Give them the space and freedom to be transparent about struggles they are experiencing with new waves of culture shock and language acquisition. Then use what they shared to motivate you to engage in specific prayer on their behalf.
The work of learning a second foreign language is not hopeless or pointless. Language learning is missionary work, not merely a hurdle to clear to get to the “real” ministry God has for you. Missionaries, persevere in the effort of learning the second, third, or even fourth language. Churches, persevere in prayer and caring for your missionaries well.
As we go together, we can go far.
Matthew Hirt has a PhD in International Missions from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He currently serves as missions faculty at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, where he trains aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor of the book Generational Disciple-Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. You can follow him on Twitter.