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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Jonathan Franzen's youth group memoir.

It's not on-line, but if you still have your June 6 issue of the New Yorker, make sure to read Jonathan Franzen's memoir about his 1970s Congregational Church youth group, "The Retreat" (pages 74-83). I'll admit that when I was the youth minister — "high school youth programs director," to be exact — at a large Unitarian Universalist church in Massachusetts in the late '90s, I didn't have anything like the charisma of Bob Mutton, the seminarian who led "Fellowship" in Webster Groves, Missouri, from 1970 to 1973:

In churches the size of First Congregational, senior-high groups typically have thirty or forty members — the number that Fellowship had attracted in its first year. By June, 1970, when First Congregational hired Mutton as the new associate minister, the group's membership had doubled to eighty, and in the first two years of Mutton's ministry, at the historical apex of American disenchantment with institutional authority, it doubled again. Every weekday after school, church elders had to pick their way through teen-age feet in sandals, Keds, and work boots. There was a clutch of adoring girls who practically lived in Mutton's office, vying for space on his beat-up sofa, beneath his psychedelic Jesus poster. Between this office and the church's meeting hall, dozens of other kids in embroidered smocks and denim shirts were playing guitars in competing keys while cigarette smoke whitely filled the long-necked noda bottles into which everyone persisted in dropping butts despite complaints from the vending-machine company.

"I'll ask the youth minister to ask them again not to do that," the infinitely patient church secretary kept promising the company.

Kids from other churches joined the group for the romance of Arizona [where the church went each spring break to work on the Navajo Reservation], for the twenty-hour marathons of live music that the bus rides in both directions quickly became, and for the good-looking crowds that came to the acoustic and electric concerts that Fellowship musicians held in the church on Friday nights. The biggest draw, though, was Mutton himself. As the overplayed song then had it, "To sing the blues / You've got to live the dues," and Mutton's blue-collar background and his violent allergy to piousness made him a beacon of authenticity to the well-groomed kids of Webster Groves. Working with adolescents was notoriously time-consuming, but Mutton, lacking a social life, had time for it. In his simmering and posturing and cursing, he stood for the adolescent alienation that nobody else over twenty in Webster Groves seemed to understand.

Come to think of it, I had almost nothing in common with Mutton — except that I too was a young outsider in the upscale suburban congregation that hired me as a seminarian. But Franzen's memoir is so full of details and dynamics that youth ministers know well that I couldn't help but feel nostalgia. The trust walks, the bonding-through-crisis, the worried but grateful parents, the overnight retreats, the cliques, the awkward kids who discover self-confidence, the sensitive kids, the poets and musicians, the jokers, the tweakers, the burn-out, the passion — it's all there.

I lucked out: I worked with a group of dedicated and supportive parents who had grown their program with two advisers over five years before I arrived (and who have kept growing the program with three more advisers in the five years since I left); dedicated youth leaders who worked well with each other, with the adults, and with the church leadership; and a great group of kids — usually one or two dozen each Sunday night, with fifty to sixty active in one or another of our programs. At our final youth group meeting the week I graduated from seminary, I told the kids that the job had been the most rewarding work I had ever done. It was.

P.S. Chuck Currie will be pleased to see that Franzen's adviser was an Eden alumnus.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 19 June 2005 at 11:40 AM

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June 22, 2005 09:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

I enjoyed the article, and I was glad to see Franzen, who's usually quite shy about his encounter with doubt and faith, talking about it in this open fashion.

I did have a friend (who is himself a liberal Christian) who read this and said, "It's great, but it sort of confirms that liberal Christianity is a social organization more than anything else." Not sure if I agree, but there you go.


July 28, 2005 08:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was in Fellowship and didn't realize that Jon was too. I'd love to get in touch. I was very involved and I would think we might have met.

Kate Whitaker


September 16, 2005 12:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

I am dying to read the article and I can't find it anywhere. If anyone has a copy, could they email or fax it to me? I'm really interested in summer camps, and religious summer camp experiences, and would love hear what franzen had to say about his. my email is

Chip Jahn:

October 4, 2005 08:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

I was a member and then an advisory to first Congregational's Fellowship group. Now I am a pastor in two rural congregations in Southern IN that I have served since leaving seminary 26 years ago. The focus of the the group was on Christian community (social organization with Kingdom aspirations) When I came to the group I was a little thug. I learned from Bob and the other members, including Jon, that I had a higher calling. We were taught the value of service and mission. We had our own liturgical symbols and services that wove our 1970 suburban lives into the greater Christian tapistry. It was the event in my life where I was both saved for and invested in a work that has given meaning ever since.

Chip Jahn

h sofia:

October 4, 2005 05:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

Nate wrote: I did have a friend (who is himself a liberal Christian) who read this and said, "It's great, but it sort of confirms that liberal Christianity is a social organization more than anything else." Not sure if I agree, but there you go.

Nate, I would say that lots of religions (if not all) are social organizations. In my experience, most people believe what they do because of who they spend their time with. I spent 23 years as a practicing Muslim and this is ingrained in everything we did - there are even traditions which speak against spending too much time alone.

People are inclined to believe anything, I think. It's just a matter of which group sucks them in first.


November 4, 2005 09:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

that's Webster Groves, MISSOURI, by the way, not Illinois.

Franzen's another author in a long line of distinguished authors from the Gateway City, including TS Eliot


November 5, 2005 07:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the correction, Jonny. I've adjusted my post accordingly. I wonder how I came up with Illinois?

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