Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Threshold Concepts in Life and Faith

Written by: on October 6, 2022

The carpenter in me sees the word “threshold” and immediately a transition strip or door trim of some kind comes to mind. The Kinesiologist in me sees “threshold” as a maximum output or delineation of a new system in the body activating.  The student in me sees something completely unique in regard to learning and understanding and I am drawn to the word “threshold” because of its multi-dimensional identity.

I like to break barriers in many ways and see what is on the other side. Understanding a concept that was previously unknown to me feels good. It also inspires me to continue to learn and not give up when I’m approached by a learning threshold or barrier. Studying the Concept of Thresholds this week has opened my eyes to the unique boundaries that surround me and the people I lead and influence.  When analyzing learning concepts and thresholds, I find it interesting that people learn in so many different ways, and in some cases, I find it frustrating.  I often wonder how can someone miss something so obvious?  My wife is a perfect example of active learning and her thresholds on certain subjects can be 180 degrees different from mine. Even though she is the smartest person I know, she misses a lot of what I would consider common sense and does not “see the Dalmatian” in the picture or even get the joke in most cases that my daughter and I inherently can’t stop laughing at.

The reading from Meyer and Land, “Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding,” opened up my eyes in many ways to identifying threshold concepts. [1] Chapter five put a halt on my reading and writing and sent me down a rabbit hole of processing for a lot of my day. I was reminded of the quote from Socrates, “you don’t know what you don’t know” and realized there have been many philosophers who share similar yet slightly different views on knowledge and thresholds. Aristotle famously wrote, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” Confucius is quoted saying “to know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”  I believe these quotes are true but often individuals including myself fall into the trap of assumptions and naive opinions that we perceive as fact. This is dangerous and will get us in trouble according to Mark Twain, “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In my own life, I have noticed I am naturally drawn to creative learning however I do enjoy active and social learning by myself or with a small group.  Regardless of the method, I need to arrive at an understanding that lies on the other side of the barrier somehow. If I’m stuck on a concept, for example, a Biblical view that is deep and obscure;  I have noticed that I am often forced to change my method and point of reference and in many cases invite the Spirit into the struggle so my eyes might be opened to see something I’ve missed. I believe spiritual learning is a concept that also helps overcome barriers and offers understanding and interpretation that will limit thresholds or barriers.  I am finding myself using this technique more often in my life than in the traditional disciplines.  Recognizing these barriers and thresholds is the key to unlocking the door to new understandings. Inviting the Spirit into the learning process for wisdom and guidance is an essential step that is often overlooked.

In the video “Breaking Through: Threshold Concepts as a Key to Understanding” by Robert Coven, he mentioned approximately 4:44 seconds in, that “there is a paradox in time when you know what you’re looking for and you can forget the time in which you didn’t know. You can’t go back.”[2]  He explains that once you have crossed a certain threshold, you can’t unlearn it. It’s also the reason “teachers can’t truly empathize with their students.”[3] We can’t un-see something or unlearn something. Therefore we can’t truly relate to the behaviors in which students learn until they have crossed the threshold themselves.  I agree with this philosophy and immediately started to contemplate faith and thresholds in Christianity, however, I’m still struggling with individuals who have faith and then lose it somehow? Did they unlearn faith, not practice it, or some other reason that made them revert in their knowledge of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit?

I believe Christians or people with a sense of Christianity settle too often when faced with a barrier in their understanding.  Sometimes we settle for a misunderstanding of a subject and do not pursue the crossing of the threshold. Why do some people reach a certain threshold and accept the barrier as impossible?  Why do we give up instead of pressing forward or write it off as an unidentifiable interpretation, error, or as cultural understanding that doesn’t impact us today? It’s because our world settles. Our western culture settles.  We want whatever we want, we want it now and we don’t want to dig deep. The world is easily influenced and also lazy in many ways. I believe it’s our job as leaders to anticipate barriers, understand methods for overcoming obstacles, teach in a manner that many can understand, and seek the Kingdom as our number one priority in life and in knowledge so we can gain the Spirit’s perspective first.

The problem is that many who call themselves Christians have settled and do not realize they are just at a threshold than can be overcome. The awareness of the threshold or obstacle is half the battle yet too often we move on and do not optimize our knowledge or understanding.  Just like in exercise there is a new system that gets turned on but we ignore it. People in the gym assume that the harder they work on a cardio machine, the greater the benefit; although study after study proves that awareness of our thresholds through heart rates will produce greater results. This is the same for Christianity. Most study what they want, not where they’re led. Most read the Bible on the surface instead of with deep hermeneutic techniques.  We do not dive deep enough into the Word, we don’t invite the Spirit in, and we settle for assumptions and superficial Christianity.  Jim Morrison may have said it best. We need to “break on through to the other side.”



[1] Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land. 2012. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding : Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. London ; Mew York: Routledge.

[2] Coven, Robert. 2018. “Breaking Through: Threshold Concepts as a Key to Understanding | Robert Coven | TEDxCaryAcademy.” Www.youtube.com. November 18, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCPYSKSFky4.

[3] Ibid.

About the Author

Michael O'Neill

Director of Operations / Executive Pastor at Kinergy, Inc. Federal 501c3 Non-Profit Organization. An experienced entrepreneur, leader, father, wellness professional, and owner of a multi-location medical practice with my wife, Nicole O'Neill, MD.

10 responses to “Threshold Concepts in Life and Faith”

  1. Kristy Newport says:

    I believe you have a wonderful grasp of threshold concepts! I am excited to hear how God blesses the many ways you have “pressed on” to see Kinergy take off! I can’t help but admire your relevant and innovative ways to reach people in your community for the Kingdom.
    In Cape Town we talked at length about the leaders you collaborate with. You spoke of how gifted they are but how they “reach their limits” in creating a loving Christian community. I am curious as to how you see continuing to work with believers who don’t have the same vision you do?

    I love what you had to say here:

    “I believe it’s our job as leaders to anticipate barriers, understand methods for overcoming obstacles, teach in a manner that many can understand, and seek the Kingdom as our number one priority in life and in knowledge so we can gain the Spirit’s perspective first.”

    As a sister in Christ, I want to affirm you. You have a relational approach which has energy and approachability. I pray you continue to bring this into your ministry context. I pray the leaders around you would see how this brings connection and sustainability. I hear your heart for the Kingdom and your desire to be led of the Spirit.

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thank you, Kristy. I think I may have to incorporate a model to grow leaders. We live in a world of leadership bankruptcy and I can’t keep expecting people to step up and then be disappointed when they don’t. I have to coach them and learn from all of you how to mold and form leaders. I invite you all into this journey and ministry with me and appreciate your support. I also invite the Spirit into this ministry and pray that I will be guided along the way.

  2. mm Chad McSwain says:

    I really enjoyed the connections you made to thresholds in construction, kinesiology and faith. You also asked questions that I wrestled with in my post, concerning thresholds in Christianity or the practice of faith. I am curious if some of the connections you have made may be helpful to understand similar barriers in faith.
    For example, you mentioned the amount of cardio a person will do when studies have shown that it is a matter of heart rate. Could it be that the person either does not have access to the information or knowledge of how to apply the information (i.e. an elevated heart rate for an extended period of time)? Perhaps the solution is a trainer to guide the person through the liminal space into a better, applied approach?
    That leads me to think that in our more individual approaches to faith, it is easier to shy away from embracing the liminal moment in favor of easy answers or return previous approaches in thinking. When people are in community and even have “spiritual guides” in their life, then they are more likely to push into threshold experiences and even stick with faith through different seasons in their life.

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Chad, I think you nailed it in regard to the approach. It’s definitely two-fold. One, we do have to make sure people know what they need to know. Individual’s may be exercising in a way that is not efficient and doing the same in their walk of faith simply because of lack of experience or knowledge. The second part of this involves serving it up in a way they can digest and enjoy. That’s where new ministries come in. New discipleship. New ideas. And new ways to motivate and inspire individuals.

      We’re in a difficult battle as Christian leaders today. It’s our job to recognize these thresholds and create ways for people to see the truth. The light. The love. And the things that can only come from God himself.

  3. Tonette Kellett says:


    Wow… You have hit on real spiritual truths in your post from this week’s readings. You have made a connection to threshold concepts and threshold learning in our own Christian walks and pressing through that of course is there and much needed in our society today, that I overlooked while reading these things on my own. I didn’t see this “Dalmatian”! Thank you for your insights, and issuing a call to all of us as believers not to quit when challenges get tough, but to face them head on and see them through to the end.

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thank you, Tonette. I’m a little bit of a broken record on this subject. I feel strongly that my call is to change the way people see and do “church.” I will keep pressing the model, the people, the leaders, and the flock with all that I can. I greatly appreciate your support and insight. We’re all in this battle together for His glory.

  4. Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your post! I was especially drawn to your thoughts on inviting the Spirit in to help us understand concepts that are deep and obscure. Do you have any recent examples of how the Spirit led you through a difficult concept to a place of understanding?

    Also, I appreciate your references to the different ways we use “threshold” in various disciplines. I was recently discussing with my husband the “threshold” run in regards to cross-country workouts. The student athletes with whom he works have a hard time grasping the purpose of the threshold run and want to push the pace quickly beyond the lactate threshold, which defeats the purpose of the workout. I wonder if we sometimes push the learning pace, out of impatience or misunderstanding, and miss what the Spirit might be teaching us. Any thoughts?

  5. Michael O'Neill says:

    Thank you for your comments, Jenny. I have many examples of the Spirit guiding me. A few years ago and named it the “Prayer Chair” and I made a rule that I could only take one (possibly two if related) issue to the prayer chair. I sit in complete meditation with the spirit and pray for guidance and an answer. I look at the problem or situation from everyone’s point of view that is involved and usually I am given the solution. I’ve gotten to a point where I can feel a physical “tell” when I’m going down the right path so that’s my secret to my spiritual understanding.

    I LOVE your example on running, pace, and the correlation to our learning behaviors. I think you’re on point with your question of pace. I wish I had an answer for you but I am going to have to digest this. It is so true. We rush through so much and miss the point or miss what the Spirit may be telling us. Wow. Great point. Thank you.

  6. Michael,
    I appreciate you so much. You did a great job of bringing this information to a wide range of readers. You did a great job of giving a great visual right of the start by your carpentry example. I am excited to learn more from you.

  7. Alana Hayes says:

    That’s so fun that you thought of a door threshold, because I did too initially. The fun thing about a door threshold in my mind is that it connects two rooms to solidify the space. That’s similar to the threshold that we are supposed to be talking about. Something that solidifies a concept in your brain!

    What is something that has recently become a threshold concept to you that you can identify?

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