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 hisown church 43 years ago with 35 members -- so he has signed on to helplead a charge by the Southern Baptist Convention to plant "megachurches"in the nation's urban centers.

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

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

Using sophisticated marketing research and millions of dollars inseed money, they have targeted four initial metropolitan areas -- Boston, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Chicago -- where they want to plantmegachurches, 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 thenew ministry, money that will be matched by denomination officials.

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

Falwell was a pioneer in the uniquely American idea of the suburbanmegachurch 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 ofLiberty University, said it is virtually impossible to successfullylaunch a new church without major financial support.

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

Until two years ago, Falwell was an independent pastor and notaffiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. But he told AssociatedBaptist Press that part of the reason he joined the denomination was theemphasis Southern Baptists put on new church planting.

Falwell said if Southern Baptist leaders are successful, the numberof Southern Baptist churches could grow from 40,000 to 100,000. Only asmall portion of those churches are megachurches, however. There are 800churches 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, theyare not always successful. Television magnate Lowell "Bud" Paxson, headof 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 oldBurt 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'snot going to be because we weren't committed to this from the verybeginning," said Phil Roberts, the vice president for strategic citystrategies 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 musicministry, and he is finishing up a doctorate degree at LibertyUniversity. Garber said he expects to start the church in suburban LakeCounty sometime in late summer or early fall.

So far, Garber has found about 15 to 20 families who will form thecore of the church. Most likely, they will rent space for about twoyears 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 Godwas a part of it.

"We feel God is all over this, otherwise no amount of money couldbuy a megaministry," Garber said. "If we didn't feel God was in this, wewouldn'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 ofprograms tailored to the spiritual and physical needs of their members.

"But that can't replace the importance of a church plant like I did43 years ago with Thomas Road Baptist Church," he said.