June 11, 2007
James Forbes Still Taking Fire
Do you want your social gospel with or without the gospel?
James Forbes is a powerful preacher, with a well-deserved reputation. But now that he's retiring, some of the tensions that his 18-years of ministry have brought to Manhattan's famous Riverside are surfacing in the media. On Sunday, the New York Times covered last week's colorful celebration of Forbes's ministry, and surfaced some of the critics as well. (See "With an Exit, a Historic Church at a Crossroads." )
Their complaint? According to the Times, "Dr. Forbes's detractors, most of whom have histories at the church that predate him, accuse him of softening Riverside's political involvement and abandoning his predecessors' intellectual approach for something more evangelical. At times, he has shown a fondness for altar calls during services, and his sermons can be long and emotional."
The Times story makes it clear: Forbes has been no slouch at social activism - he was arrested during the Haitian refugee crisis and hosted Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. But like many African-American preachers, he has blended liberal social activisim with a biblically-based piety. No, he has reinforced social activism with biblical piety.
He told the Times:
"People thought they were getting Bible Belt values as well as my Bible Belt style," he said. "There were meetings questioning my commitment to social justice. I believe in people anchoring their faith to a more personal relationship with God. But there's plenty of room at the Riverside Church for people to feel uncomfortable.
"There was a time when the church was viewed in terms of its commentary on social events," he went on. "I felt that having a biblical foundation actually strengthens that," he said of his sermons.
Ah. There's the rub. Some of Riverside Church's old guard want their social gospel unadulterated by ... um ... the gospel.
Related: Following the September 11 attacks, Leadership, CT's sister publication for pastors, interviewed Forbes about ministry after such a disaster. That conversation is available to members in our paid archive.