Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell says a new 12,000-seat Thomas Road Baptist Church, projected to have the largest seating capacity of any church in North America, will be completed in Lynchburg, Virginia, by Christmas 1999.

"We think our drawing power for the church will extend many miles in many directions," he says. "With the growth of the church and a student body that will reach 10,000 in the next six years, we feel a 12,000-seat church is more realistic." Thomas Road's existing sanctuary, built in 1969, has 3,300 seats.

The new church will be five miles away on the city's Candler's Mountain near Liberty University, which Falwell founded in 1971. Construction will cost at least $20 million, and Falwell expects four unnamed—and as yet unsecured—benefactors to contribute $5 million apiece.

Financial problems have long plagued Liberty (CT, Dec. 9, 1996, p. 62), and the school fell $110 million in debt in 1990. But thanks to multimillion-dollar gifts from friends such as term life insurance titan A. L. Williams (CT, Dec. 8, 1997, p. 61), Liberty's debt has been reduced to $10 million.

"This will be the biggest thing we've done since building the university," Falwell says. The sanctuary will be part of the first phase of a new $200 million project planned for the 1,400-acre site. Future phases will include athletic facilities, a television studio, an outdoor amphitheater, a retirement village, a recreational vehicle park, and a conference center.

Despite the colossal size, Falwell says the sanctuary will be cozy. "You've got to have a balcony and keep everybody close in," Falwell says. "Eye contact is very important."

Falwell started Thomas Road in 1956 with 35 members. The church now has 22,000 members and 7,500 weekly attendees. Church officials have discussed the move to a new sanctuary since 1981. Previously $7 million had been raised to purchase land and for architectural plans.

Falwell, who turned 65 in August, says the new church will be his last hurrah as he begins to hand over control to associate pastors, including son Jonathan. "That would be my last major project," he says. "I'd like to get that done and have it paid for before I pass [the ministry] to somebody else."

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