LYNCHBURG, VA. -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell preaches a sermon in this central Virginia town that is guaranteed to bring the church down. It is called "Precipice Living."

But Thomas Road Baptist Church hasn't heard it in a while. Perhaps that's because a weary Falwell has stepped back from life's edge. Earlier this month, he relinquished the presidency of Moral Majority after eight years, and before that he resigned as chairman of PTL, ending his attempt to salvage the empire of defrocked TV evangelist Jim Bakker.

Today he's back attending to his local independent church, his "Old Time Gospel Hour" and several educational institutions: a megaministry that spent $91 million last year and suffered in his absence.

"We've got some digging out to do," Falwell told 4,000 Christians packed into the church sanctuary on a recent Sunday. "We've got some fund raising to do. But I've come home to do it because I believe you and I can be God's instrument to bring revival to America and evangelization to the world."

Those who have watched Falwell come full circle see him as a metaphor for a significant chunk of the Christian right who, sensing that their most visible political victories are over, are puzzling over what their role should be in the post-Reagan era.

When the religious right "came in from the wilderness with the 1980 elections, it was a heady experience," says Richard John Neuhaus, coauthor of "Piety and Politics," a newly released anthology. "A lot of them have begun to say, 'Let's not get too carried away. Maybe we've become tools of the power game itself. We have to think this through.' " Even the presidential candidacy of one of their own -- former TV evangelist Pat Robertson -- elicits ambivalence. A recent poll of 70 evangelical leaders by the National Association of Evangelicals showed that among the Republican candidates, Robertson came in fourth.

Perhaps, some say, Falwell (who long ago endorsed George Bush) is trying to distance himself from Robertson. Perhaps he saw his television donors slipping away and needed to do something dramatic to convince them his heart is in Lynchburg. But these same observers do not believe for a minute that Falwell has abandoned his desire to change the moral fabric of America, and they question whether he can cap his ambition to be at center stage.

More likely, says church historian Martin E. Marty, Falwell has simply changed his theater.

The son of a backwoods Virginia agnostic who made money in oil and bootleg liquor, Falwell has hungered to be a major influence on mainstream America for most of his adult life. Spreading the Gospel, which he came to through his mother, gave him the reason to pursue this ambition. Television and, later, political lobbying provided the means.

But the fundamentalist Christianity he learned at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., was shackle as well as incentive. Its view of itself as the one true way, based on a literal reading of the Bible, discouraged compromise. And its disdain for the secular world of politics prevented Falwell from exercising his considerable political acumen to its fullest.

Falwell's friends say he is no longer certain how -- or whether -- he can be both political statesman and preacher.

"Falwell was on the left edge of fundamentalism, and that got me excited," says Nelson Keener, an executive in Falwell's organization for seven years until 1984, when he went to work for born-again Prison Fellowship head Charles Colson. "But he also gave off certain signals that showed he was still a fundamentalist. He wasn't going to go beyond certain points."

Keener applauds Falwell's decision to change course: "He's starting to face reality."

Falwell's shifting of gears took place as he was writing his autobiography, "Strength for the Journey," released the day he stepped down from Moral Majority. In the book, aided by ghostwriter Mel White, Falwell portrays himself as more ordinary guy than right-wing religious zealot.

The Falwell of the book is someone who, on the first page, commits "a safe sin" of driving over the speed limit to visit his family grave. He is someone who in his youth sloughed off at school, ran with a gang and waited until college to convert to Christianity, the book says. Distancing himself from some other TV preachers, he says he has never heard the actual voice of God.

"I wanted to reach people who do not listen to me preach," Falwell, now 54, says of this new, toned-down persona. He has been pushing this new Jerry hard. He was not pleased when, on the first day of the book tour, he learned he was going to have to share his hour of television time on CNN's "Larry King Live" with someone else.

Who was it? Falwell wanted to know. "I don't know," said his aide, Mark DeMoss.

"Bump him," Falwell growled.

That's not very Christian, he was reminded.

"It isn't, is it?" Falwell replied. "Bump him."

("Him" turned out to be actress Sandy Duncan, who was not bumped.)

Simon and Schuster's first printing was a sizable 260,000 copies, according to Falwell. Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church ministry bought 100,000 of these to distribute, mostly to TV donors. Falwell said he did not know how much the ministry paid for those books, but industry sources estimate it was about 30 percent of the book's $18.95 retail price. In that case, the ministry shelled out about $568,000.

The church will get some of that back, according to figures Falwell provided. Simon and Schuster paid him a $1 million advance, and of that, a third went to taxes, $100,000 to his agent and $125,000 to ghostwriter White. The rest, about $442,000, Falwell says he's donating to the church.

The day his book was released, Falwell rose at 5:45 a.m. to study the Bible for an hour, a cup of strong coffee -- "my one addiction" -- in his hand. Then, exchanging one desk for another, he drove over to the Liberty University campus to broadcast "The Pastor's Study," a new TV talk show appearing in about 85 markets.

"The Pastor's Study" is being kept small for the time being, Falwell associates say. Tax filings and other financial records show there is reason to be cautious. Donor contributions to Old Time Gospel Hour -- the name for the broadcast ministry as well as the popular syndicated show -- began declining in the year ending June 30, 1983, according to tax reports. They went from $52.6 million that year to $50.4 million the next, to $48.7 million in 1985 to $44.2 million in 1986.

In each of those years, the broadcast ministry ended with several million dollars' worth of bills outstanding, according to the reports. A former high-ranking employe said the ministry waits as long as 60 to 90 days past due date to pay many of its broadcasting bills. Falwell says that since the PTL crisis, television stations are less willing to carry such bills.

The Gospel Hour has in past years turned to Falwell's political organizations for gifts of $1 million and more, according to financial records. And during the years 1985-87, Gospel Hour board members made short-term loans to the broadcast division, in amounts ranging from $1.25 million to $7.6 million.

Television air time now costs Falwell $1 million to $1.5 million a month, an enormous jump from the $90 a week he paid when he began preaching on TV in 1956. "No other preachers were on television then," he writes in his book. "Television made me a kind of instant celebrity."

A former football fullback, Falwell carries 235 pounds, and wrinkles line his broad face. But in front of lights and cameras, the pounds and years fall away. His ease in front of the cameras is legendary. One story -- which he doesn't dispute -- has him turning to a television talk show host shortly before they go on air and asking, "Should I answer you in 30-second, 60-second, or 1-minute-30 spots?"

After taping "The Pastor's Study," Falwell drove his four-wheel-drive GMC Suburban to the Lynchburg airport for the 25-minute trip to Washington. He was a preacher-politician for the last time, he said.

He beamed at that day's press conference. He sparred with reporters. He didn't always give a full answer, but he always had an answer ready. Even when he was not the person being addressed.

When his Moral Majority replacement, Jerry Nims, was asked what issues the organization would focus on in the future, Falwell stepped forward as if to answer, then backed away. "It's going to take a while to get used to this new role," he said later.

It's a little unclear what this new role is going to be for a man who is accustomed to lobbying for pet causes. Two years ago he made a highly controversial visit to South Africa, then urged increased U.S. investment there. At about the same time, he urged the federal government to consider quarantining homosexuals who continue sexual activity after they are diagnosed as having AIDS.

At the press conference, Falwell left the door open for some political activity. "I will stay on the Moral Majority board," he said. "If signing a fund-raising letter for a cause will help, I'll do that."

He also said the Moral Majority has done for the right what the civil rights movement did for black churches -- an odd reference for those who remember Falwell's segregated Lynchburg Christian Academy (integrated in 1969, two years after it opened) and his statements against civil rights preachers.

Falwell says he was inspired to enter politics by the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion. By the early 1980s, he was spending more than half of his time in politics, he said recently.

He quickly learned that nonfundamentalist Christians, as well as Mormons, Jews, and even atheists, were vital to his success. He reached out to them through mailings and rallies, even as he remembered earlier days when "I didn't even get along very well with other kinds of Baptists, let alone with Methodists, Presbyterians or Catholics."

Falwell never became so ecumenical, however, as to invite these other Christians to his pulpit. Even today, that is a private club reserved for fundamentalists.

The clearest example of Falwell's outreach -- though evident only to insiders at the time -- was his assumption last March of Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL, a ministry that embraces charismatic doctrine. Fundamentalist Protestants criticize key parts of charismatic theology, and as soon as Falwell announced his intentions, he encountered criticism from other Baptist preachers. His assistant of 15 years, the Rev. Ed Dobson, went through on long-held plans to leave Thomas Road Baptist Church for another church in Michigan. In September the Baptist Bible Fellowship, a loose affiliation of independent Baptists from which Falwell comes, passed a resolution distancing itself from his ministry.

"It's like being turned out of your own family," said the Rev. Ben Armstrong, executive director of the National Association of Religious Broadcasters.

The PTL period was a nightmare for Falwell and his associates. With two empires to run, "overnight, it became almost unbearable," recalls Falwell spokesman DeMoss.

As revelations surfaced at PTL about financial wrongdoing, and the deficit there mounted to about $70 million, Falwell's eight-seat jet flew him to PTL headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., four and five times a week. He flew home almost every night to see Macel, his wife of 29 years, often not getting back until late night or early morning. He continued to preach almost every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. "I've known Jerry for 10 years," said DeMoss. "I've never seen him so tired, physically and mentally."

Donations to the Old Time Gospel Hour -- normally $1.2 million a month -- began dropping by as much as 60 percent. By late summer, for the first time in his 31 years as pastor, Falwell began hearing grumbling from longtime members of the congregation, as well as board members and university staff, that he was seriously neglecting his own projects. He could not afford to lose their goodwill.

PTL was a high-wire act that failed. Two weeks after his resignation, Falwell said, "Overall, we probably came out ahead." Two weeks later he softened that: "We did what we could." Is Falwell, this bear of a man who flies through storms without a seat belt, finally feeling vulnerable?

"There's no doubt," he said recently, "one must be sensitive to the supporters. Once you've lost a donor, you'll never get him back. You could bring the ministry right down on its head."

He ran through the other TV ministries he believes are in trouble -- Oral Roberts' show, "The 700 Club" -- then paused. "I can no longer say I'm master of my destiny. I'm not."

When the Moral Majority press conference was over, Falwell boarded his plane to return to Lynchburg for the 2 p.m. funeral of a friend's wife. As soon as he settled in with coffee and barbecued potato skins, he picked up the plane's phone and dialed Macel. He got the family's answering machine.

"Hi, honey," he said. "It's 12:29. Run to the Baptist Hospital, pray with Joe, then go on to the funeral home." He ran through his schedule for the rest of the week, then turned to DeMoss, his aide. "Am I tight Saturday?" he asked. DeMoss reminded him that Saturday was his daughter's birthday. "It's Jeannie's birthday," he said into the phone, "write that down."

Falwell hadn't known he was supposed to speak at the funeral until the day before. It would have been easier not to go, since he was supposed to appear on several talk shows in Washington that day as part of his book tour.

But he has always said his pastoring duties come first. He preached at the funeral, then flew back in time for a 4 p.m. taping on National Public Radio, followed by a newspaper interview and Larry King's television and radio shows.

Falwell's loyalty to his local congregation stems from the early, difficult days of 1956 when, in typical bullheaded fashion, he took 35 families away from one Baptist church in Lynchburg to form another, against the advice of his mentors at the Bible college.

Falwell has prospered in the intervening years, though not as outlandishly as some of his fellow TV preachers. He says his income last year, before taxes, was $435,000, and this year's will be "comparable, or a little more." That includes a $100,000 salary, health and insurance benefits, transportation costs, royalties from earlier books and up to $5,000 per speaking engagement.

While membership in many conservative Christian churches has boomed in recent years, Thomas Road Baptist has hovered between 20,000 and 22,000 since the mid-1970s. Falwell says that's because his church building seats only 4,000; he and his board of directors are currently raising money for a new, 11,206-seat sanctuary. "By today's standards, it would be the biggest in the country," he boasts.

Falwell, who says his Liberty Baptist Seminary has trained almost 1,000 men to be pastors, wants to train 4,000 more by the end of the century. During that same period, he'd like to see the enrollment of Liberty University, the third part of his triad, ejump to 50,000.

University of Virginia sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden says Falwell deliberately quotes outrageous figures, "which then become goals." Falwell puts it slightly differently: "If we don't make it, we'll be much higher than had we not set these astronomical goals."

The undergraduate university seems to be doing well, with 5,000 students on campus and about 3,000 off-campus students, many of them enrolled in courses at home. The fully accredited school distinguishes Falwell's empire from that of most other televangelists, and he now says it will be his most important legacy: training scientists, teachers and other professionals to assume leadership alongside more liberally trained elite.

Falwell believes Liberty University can groom young evangelical Christian leaders the way the University of Notre Dame has trained young Catholics, and that Liberty graduates can replace as leaders the sons and daughters of this country's current cultural elite. It is, perhaps, his most ambitious goal. However, says theologian Neuhaus, "one could make the case {the goal} is doomed to failure."

Liberty University -- where biology professors teach creationism as the preferred theory over evolution -- would have to secularize its program and faculty too much to win widespread endorsement, Neuhaus says. And he sees a second problem: The second generation of the religious right may not have the "fire in the belly" that their parents had to become part of the establishment, an ambition that is critical if they want to lead.

Jonathan Falwell, a mischievous-looking 21-year-old redhead who has followed his dad around since elementary school days, is a member of that second generation. Jerry Falwell would like Jonathan, his youngest, to go to a Baptist seminary in Dallas next fall and prepare to take over the family ministry.

"But Jonathan doesn't like to study much," Falwell sighed. "He's gotta learn that to compete, you've got to be one step ahead of everyone else."