WASHINGTON, April 21 (RNS)--Even as he attempts to regain his political kingmaker status with a campaign to register 10 million new voters, the Rev. Jerry Falwell knows he was a pastor before becoming a political powerbroker.

He knows the importance of planting new churches -- he started his own church 43 years ago with 35 members -- so he has signed on to help lead a charge by the Southern Baptist Convention to plant "megachurches" in the nation's urban centers.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination with 15.7 million members, has targeted cities as the mission field of the 21st century. They plan to start churches they hope will grow to about 2,000 people in at least four major cities.

By pumping large amounts of money and pastoral talent into strategic cities, Southern Baptists believe they can move beyond their traditional foothold in rural and suburban America and "win cities for Christ."

Using sophisticated marketing research and millions of dollars in seed money, they have targeted four initial metropolitan areas -- Boston, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Chicago -- where they want to plant megachurches, which will eventually spawn smaller churches themselves.

Falwell's church has been tapped to lead the Chicago initiative. Falwell and his church plan to give $500,000 over two years toward the new ministry, money that will be matched by denomination officials.

Three other large churches will also sponsor new megachurches. First Baptist Church in Orlando will oversee Philadelphia, First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., will sponsor Las Vegas and Prestonwood Baptist in Dallas and First Baptist Church in Euless, Texas, will co-sponsor Boston.

Falwell was a pioneer in the uniquely American idea of the suburban megachurch at his own Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., which grew from 35 members in 1956 to well over 24,000 members today. Falwell, the former head of the Moral Majority and now chancellor of Liberty University, said it is virtually impossible to successfully launch a new church without major financial support.

"It takes a church to give birth to a church," he said. "The idea is to put a lot of resources in with a super leader in a super setting and get super results."

Until two years ago, Falwell was an independent pastor and not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. But he told Associated Baptist Press that part of the reason he joined the denomination was the emphasis Southern Baptists put on new church planting.

Falwell said if Southern Baptist leaders are successful, the number of Southern Baptist churches could grow from 40,000 to 100,000. Only a small portion of those churches are megachurches, however. There are 800 churches that have more than 2,000 members, with an even smaller number, about 100, that have more than 2,000 worshippers each Sunday.

Besides the obvious financial risks of starting a megachurch, they are not always successful. Television magnate Lowell "Bud" Paxson, head of the Paxson Communications, wanted to start an "instant megachurch" near West Palm Beach, Fla., last year, but the project soon fell flat.

Paxson dumped substantial amounts of money into the project, recruited a pastor from Indiana to lead the church and bought an old Burt Reynolds dinner theater to house the church. Within three months, however, the project was dead.

"If this is an abject failure, which we don't expect it to be, it's not going to be because we weren't committed to this from the very beginning," said Phil Roberts, the vice president for strategic city strategies for the SBC's North American Mission Board.

Falwell has hand-picked the pastor to lead the new church, the Rev. Kevin Garber. Garber and his wife have a traveling preaching and music ministry, and he is finishing up a doctorate degree at Liberty University. Garber said he expects to start the church in suburban Lake County sometime in late summer or early fall.

So far, Garber has found about 15 to 20 families who will form the core of the church. Most likely, they will rent space for about two years before buying land and building, he said. Garber said he is "humbled" by the project and wouldn't do it if he didn't feel that God was a part of it.

"We feel God is all over this, otherwise no amount of money could buy a megaministry," Garber said. "If we didn't feel God was in this, we wouldn't even be thinking about doing it."

Falwell said he's planting a megachurch -- as opposed to a smaller, more traditional church -- because large churches can offer a wealth of programs tailored to the spiritual and physical needs of their members.

"But that can't replace the importance of a church plant like I did 43 years ago with Thomas Road Baptist Church," he said.

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