In the USA, a televangelist is a religious minister (often a Christian priest or minister) who devotes a large portion of his (or her) ministry to TV broadcasts to a regular viewing and listening audience. A number of televangelists are also regular pastors or ministers in their own halls of worship, but the majority of their followers come from their TV and radio audiences.
Evangelists have been using telecommunications to convert people to Christianity since the earliest days of radio. One of the more famous American radio evangelists of the early 20th century was Father Charles Coughlin, whose rabid anti-Communist radio ministry reached millions of listeners during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
While largely Catholic in the north, this phenomenon has been almost entirely of the evangelical Protestant variety in the USA Midwest and South, where it formed as an outgrowth of revival-tent preaching, which experienced a resurgence during the Great Depression as itinerant traveling preachers drove from town to town, living off of donations.
Some televangelists have been at the center of considerable controversy, as their methods and ministries have engaged in faith healing. This method, seen as pseudoscience by skeptics, has been exposed as a fraud in the case of some televangelists, such as Peter Popoff.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of evangelical Protestant sects created superstars among televangelists, with their own media empires, news exposure, and political influence. Some of these figures retain substantial influence today.
As in other areas of faith centering around a charismatic figure, there are opportunities for unscrupulous "ministers" to try to take advantage of the faith and charity of the donor audience. Even honest evangelists, who begin their ministry with a more genuine calling to serve, may be tempted to embezzlement or self-indulgence by the celebrity of their position and the amounts of money flowing through their hands.
A series of such scandals in the 1980s resulted in the fall from grace of several famous televangelists, including Jim Bakker, who served a prison sentence for financial improprieties associated with his ministry, and Jimmy Swaggart, who made a famous tearful confession to a dalliance with a prostitute. Most of these televangelists have continued preaching, nonetheless, even though their audiences may be barely a fraction of what they were at the height of their popularity.
Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell achieved further notoriety in 2001 by their assertion to a grieving nation that the September 11 terrorist attacks constituted divine retribution provoked by what they saw as rampant sexual immorality.
Televangelism is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Most countries do not permit this kind of open access evangelism, and religious broadcasts, where they exist, are produced by the TV companies rather than private interest groups.