One year after father’s death, Falwell’s sons assume father’s mantle

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

LYNCHBURG, Va. _ Nearly a year after his father’s death, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell walks up and down the stage of Thomas Road Baptist Church with a series of briefcases behind him like the set for NBC’s “Deal or No Deal.” There’s no pulpit in sight; Falwell prefers visuals to reach his growing flock.

The night before, his older brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of nearby Liberty University, hosted a picnic and fireworks for graduating seniors at his farm 30 miles from campus.

Nearly a year after their larger-than-life father died at age 73, the brothers Falwell have each inherited one of his dual roles of pastor and educator _ and each is doing it from the perspective of the next generation.

“Literally, it’s like God split him right down the middle and gave certain parts of his skills and abilities to Jerry and others to me,” said Jonathan, 41, who assumed his father’s pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church a month after his father’s death May 15, 2007.

Both sons lead ministries that have grown in the last year. Attendance at Thomas Road has increased, and enrollment is higher at the evangelical school. They give credit to God and their late father for the positive growth, but they also acknowledge the challenges of following his five decades of ministry.

The toughest part, both agree, was simply stepping into their dad’s roles in the midst of their grief. Preaching that first Sunday after his father’s death was difficult, Jonathan said.

“I served with Dad for 14 years on staff but there’s just this huge, exponential jump from an associate pastor to the senior pastor of a church this size,” said the energetic, red-haired younger son.

“And Dad, honestly with what he did, he made it look easy and unfortunately, he never told us that it wasn’t.”

Jerry Jr., the dark-haired, 45-year-old son, expressed similar sentiments after working behind the scenes for two decades at the school his father founded in 1971.

“To suddenly lose Dad and then become the CEO of the largest private university in Virginia was traumatic to say the least,” he said. “I was immediately thrust into a position where the rabbit had to climb the tree.”

Jonathan said he sought out Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, who was also thrust into a leadership role after he lost his pastor-father. Osteen and others gave him the same advice, which he continues to pass onto his congregation: “When we get to the end of our talents, that’s when God takes over.”

The back wall at Thomas Road carries a similar message: “Not I, but Christ.”

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Observers of the ministry have commended the sons for their ability to carry on while admitting the sense of loss they still have with their father’s absence.

“Dr. Falwell’s shoes are very big to fill, and Jonathan and Jerry Jr. are doing a great job to do that,” said Alex Huddleston, a sophomore at Liberty University who attends Thomas Road. “They’ve made a lot of good improvements for this year, just renovating the campus, and Jonathan is growing the church.”

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The numbers bear out the sons’ successes.

About 12,000 worshippers attend Sunday services at Thomas Road’s main sanctuary each week, an increase of about 2,000 from a year ago. If satellite locations are included, the numbers total 17,000.

At Liberty, on-campus enrollment increased from 9,600 in the 2006-07 school year to 10,400 this academic year. Fall enrollment, which has been capped for the first time, is projected at 11,300. Liberty’s online distance learning program has reached 27,000 students, exceeding the elder Falwell’s goal of 25,000. Revenues grew from $147 million in 2006 to $232 million in 2007.

Jonathan said he initially felt guilty about the church’s growth. “Why is God pouring out all these blessings now?” he wondered. But he said the congregation realized they no longer could rely on his father to carry out its evangelistic mission.

“I told them this: You better not leave it up to me because I don’t have the gifts my dad had,” Jonathan said. “I think our people have risen to the occasion and decided, you know what? Yeah, we want to reach the world but it’s going to take all of us to do it.”

Jerry Jr., the businessman in the family who speaks with a gentle Virginia drawl, attributes the growth to the ability of each son to have full-time leadership of one of the two ministries.

“I don’t see how Dad did it all,” said the older son, who had to quickly trade in “khakis and Crocs” for business suits for his new public appearances.

Scott Thumma, a megachurch scholar and sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, said both men _ after apprenticing under their father _ are maintaining some traditions while infusing both ministries with a sense of “youthfulness.”

“They had a solid reputation, both the church and the school, for a long time,” Thumma said, “but Jerry was getting older and had appealed to a different time and different people.”

Church members and ministry insiders alike express some surprise at how well the congregation is thriving.

“Friends of the Falwells and of the ministry would have predicted that the university will do just fine, the church may struggle some, because the church’s identity … was so wrapped up in the identity of Jerry Falwell,” said Mark DeMoss, a trustee of the university and longtime Falwell family friend.

“I don’t know a single person that is not surprised by the developments at that church.”

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James J.H. Price, religious studies professor at nearby Lynchburg College, said Jonathan’s “trendy” approach to Scripture is a contrast from his dad.

“I’m struck that he doesn’t try to imitate his father,” said Price, who’s seen televised broadcasts of the recent sermons in which the younger Falwell has built a house and featured a Lamborghini onstage. “It’s not just a Jerry Falwell clone.”

Price, who co-authored “Jerry Falwell: An Unauthorized Profile,” predicts that Jonathan will have a harder time in the days ahead at Thomas Road than Jerry Jr. over at the university.

“That’s easier to keep running efficiently,” he said of the school. “Jonathan’s on stage every Sunday.”

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Neither son seems worried about the future. Both have sketched out big plans for the years ahead, with Jonathan hoping to start 500 churches nationally and send 500 missionaries in the next five years. Jerry Jr. has plans for a new campus bookstore, a student activity center and athletic fields.

Even as they move ahead, the memories of their father are not far away.

The family will mark the anniversary of the elder Falwell’s death privately, at his grave on campus that’s marked with a cross and an eternal flame and overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Indeed, their father’s presence is still felt in the empire he built in Lynchburg. During the morning service at Thomas Road, Jonathan announced that a 12-minute sermon recorded in the months before his father’s death would be broadcast at an upcoming service.

The sermon title? “Three Truths for the Next Generation.”

“Friends, we are the next generation,” Jonathan told his congregation. “Dad will be preaching to us next Sunday night so we want you to be here for that.”

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Eds: Note time element _ anniversary is May 15. Also see related sidebar, RNS-FALWELL-WIDOW.

Photos of Jonathan and Jerry Falwell Jr. at Thomas Road Baptist Church are available via https://religionnews.com.