Formation of Conscience In
Christian Youth Ministry

The formation of conscience is one of the most fundamental needs in Christian youth ministry because...

Formation of conscience is crucial to good decision making because when children enter adolescence they are exposed to more situations independent of adult supervision.   

In fact, internet blogs and other socializing media have more opportunities... on a daily basis...  to have an impact on the formation of adolescent values than parents or ministers have on an adolescent's conscience formation.

Well, how does a minister do  formation of conscience with a youth?

The Answer has been available to us for thousands of years.

For Christians... the formation of conscience must be based in God’s law, the Ten Commandments. Those are the prescriptions that apply to all of our interactions with God, family and neighbors.

Those who keep the Commandments are those who love God. Those who do not keep the Commandments are those who do not love God (Ex 20:1-17; Mt 19:16ff; Jn 14:15-24).

The role of the Ten Commandments in daily life and in the formation of conscience is to demonstrate our love of God by keeping the Commandments.

And in the First Commandment God tells us that he "brought us out from slavery." That means God intends... and requires... us to be free and autonomous within the boundaries specified by the Ten Commandments. .

This aids the formation of conscience so that we will know we are doing wrong if we become enslaved to 'gods' who cannot act on our behalf.

For a minister not to teach adolescents that fundamental lesson from the Scriptures means that youth ministry has no clearly defined religious purpose.

Therefore, the role of the Ten Commandments in the formation of conscience is clear.

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Formation of conscience and the Ten Commandments

A conscience based in the Ten Commandments provides…
  1. A check on powerful emotions that might cause the adolescent to act immorally in one way or another.

    • By stealing copyrighted material

    • By worshipping celebrities of dubious character with an ardor due to  God

    • By adopting the values of politicians that are in conflict with God’s  law

    • By lying... and so forth

  2. A requirement to act despite negative feelings about doing so…

    • By honoring parents who tell an adolescent to be in at a certain hour

    • By refusing to harm others in word or deed
In the formation of conscience, the Ten Commandments create a supervisory partnership with feelings

The Commandments are the context, the safe harbor, which allows the adolescent’s feelings to operate freely but non-destructively within the boundaries of God's law.

The Commandments are the objective standard for all adolescents to use not their often volatile feelings.

And the Commandments are the objective standard for all youth ministers to use in helping an adolescent, when asked to, with an examination of conscience and the resolution of moral conflicts.

Here's an example of a priest telling an adolescent to decide an important moral dilemma on her feelings alone...

Rebecca's feelings trump her conscience

Some high school students in Bangor, Maine held a rally in protest after the legislature repealed Maine's same sex marriage law.

The headline of the online Bangor Daily News of Tuesday, November 24, 2009 spelled out the moral and political issue succinctly...


Rebecca, 15, said she came to the rally from Mass at her parish church after spending a long time in prayer before she got involved in the protest.

Clearly Rebecca was looking to God for moral guidance because she said...

"I was so conflicted about what to do."

Clearly she needed further help with the formation of conscience.

Rebecca took her moral dilemma to her priest for resolution...

"I talked to my priest," she said, "the leader of my youth group."

The issue for the priest was not the political issue of state recognition of same-sex marriage. The only issue for the priest was the fact that Rebecca was troubled in conscience about her support for such legislation.

And here was the youth group leader's moral counsel...

He told Rebecca...

"He told me to do what felt right in my heart."

Instead of helping further formation of conscience, the priest taught the troubled Rebecca that her feelings were the standard for moral decisions... despite the fact that Rebecca was seeking God"s help to decide whether to support the rally before she talked to her priest.

Rebecca's impulse to seek God's view of what she was about to do showed the presence of an active conscience.  She just had no standard in place to guide her moral decision.

The priest's advice taught Rebecca that morality was determined only by her feelings... ignoring that her feelings were troubled by her conscience about going to the rally.

This leads not only to subjective morality, but to situation ethics where daily moral choices depend on one's feelings or whether or not "everybody does it."

The youth minister taught Rebecca to ignore God's law... even though she was seeking it before talking to the minister.

And here is the Lord's suggested penalty...

Whoever causes one of these little ones

who believe in me to sin...

it would be better for him

to have a great millstone hung around his neck...

and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18:6

Here's another example of a teenager in need of conscience formation  protesting incoherently from her feelings... so that she could not even frame the issue coherently in order to make a moral judgment about it.

The Y chromosome trumps Antonia's conscience


Antonia, 16, asked... "What's the difference between a man and a woman getting married and two men or two women getting married?"

She continued...

"It's that Y chromosome or lack thereof in one of the partners. Who cares about Y choromosomes?"

Because the girl's feelings were ruling her reaction to the repeal of the same-sex marriage law, they interfered with her cognitive functioning...and she was not able to make a coherent statement of the issue so that she could judge it's moral implications.

She asked what the difference was between a man and woman getting married, and concluded with a genetic non-sequitur.

She merely stated the difference between male and female fetuses... a Y chromosome. She didn't address her own question: What's the difference between a man and a woman getting married and same-sex couples getting married?

While Rebecca in the above example had a sufficient grasp of the issue to be disturbed by its moral implications, Antonia, in this example, speaking solely from feelings, did not display a grasp of the moral, legal or social issues at all.

And that's the result when those responsibile for the training of adolecents do not facilitate conscience formation.

Operating from subjective feelings alone makes each adolescent a law unto himself or herself.

Just as is true of feelings... human laws cannot be the sole guide for moral decisions....proper formation of conscience must show up when needed. For example...

Conscientious objectors refuse to violate God’s commandment against killing and refuse to go to war... or refuse to carry guns in the military – and become medics or office workers instead.

In order to guide youths to meet the challenges of ever-growing autonomy in their lives... youth ministers, and other spiritual directors, need to be guided by the Ten Commandments... and not teach adolescents that morality is determined by their volatile feelings because...

Adolescent emotional life is so volatile and unpredictable that Sigmund Freud reportedly said that "Adolescence is a temporary mental disorder."  And his daughter Anna Freud agreed with her father when she said: "To be normal during adolescence is itself abnormal."

While there is enormous interest in youth ministry, there appears to be a dearth of interest in how to intervene in the moral life of youths.

 Anyone who teaches adolescents to rely on their feelings as a moral guide does the adolescent a great moral disservice.

To trump God's requirements for an adolescent by reducing morality to feelings means there is no such thing as a conscienc let alone a guilty conscience in Christian youth ministry. And it goes without saying... the covenant like all contracts must have specified terms and conditions binding on both parties. No contract or covenant can exist with non-mutual terms that change at one party's whim.

From formation of conscience you may go to guilty conscience to see how another youth minister told an adolescent with a moral conflict to ignore his conscience.

Or you can...

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