One of 2021’s Best Novels Revolves Around … a Church Youth Group?

In “Crossroads,” Jonathan Franzen portrays the life of faith with uncanny precision and sympathy.

The rumors are true. The panoramic new novel from Jonathan Franzen is about, among many other things, a church youth group. Crossroads, the name of both the book and the group, may even be the finest work of fiction ever written on the subject. Which is not meant as faint praise so much as an acknowledgement of the peculiarity of a work like this coming into existence in the first place, much less in 2021.

Crossroads is not the sort of youth group that most contemporary readers will associate with the term, however. There are no Bible studies, no prayer circles, no games of capture the flag, no tracts. Instead, the group bears a distinctly mainline Protestant character, albeit in its early-1970s incarnation, the period in which the novel is set.

The language of the group (a ministry of the fictional First Reformed Church in New Prospect, Illinois) is more psychological than spiritual, its character more in line with the confrontational self-help ethos of the support groups that were gaining traction at the time than the “Big E” evangelicalism that was emerging alongside. Crossroads paints a picture of a bygone era, one when cigarettes outnumbered guitars in the church parking lot by a factor of ten.

Groups like Crossroads may be relics at this point, but they are not an invention. I witnessed a similar group explode out of a Congregational church in Connecticut during the late 1990s. Franzen chronicled his own involvement in a nearly identical outfit in his essay collection The Discomfort Zone.

Interlocking crises

We first encounter the group at the zenith of its near-cultlike popularity during Advent in 1971. Charismatic leader Rick Ambrose has managed to convene an impressive throng of misfits and “popular …

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