Televangelism (tele- “distance” and “evangelism,” meaning “ministry,” sometimes called teleministry) is the use of media, specifically radio and television, to communicate Christianity. Televangelists are ministers, whether official or self-proclaimed, who devote a large portion of their ministry to television broadcasting. Some televangelists are also regular pastors or ministers in their own places of worship (often a megachurch), but the majority of their followers come from TV and radio audiences. Others do not have a conventional congregation, and work primarily through television. The term is also used derisively by critics as an insinuation of aggrandizement by such ministers.

Televangelism began as a uniquely American phenomenon, resulting from a largely deregulated media where access to television networks and cable TV is open to virtually anyone who can afford it, combined with a large Christian population that is able to provide the necessary funding. It became especially popular among Evangelical Protestant audiences, whether independent or organized around Christian denominations. However, the increasing globalisation of broadcasting has enabled some American televangelists to reach a wider audience through international broadcast networks, including some that are specifically Christian in nature, such as Trinity Broadcasting Network and The God Channel. Domestically produced televangelism is increasingly present in some other nations such as Brazil.

Some countries have a more regulated media with either general restrictions on access or specific rules regarding religious broadcasting. In such countries, religious programming is typically produced by TV companies (sometimes as a regulatory or public service requirement) rather than private interest groups.


The word televangelism is a portmanteau of television and evangelism and it was coined in 1958 as the title of a television miniseries by the Southern Baptist Convention. Jeffrey K. Hadden and Charles E. Swann have been credited with popularising the word in their 1981 survey Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism. However, the term televangelist was employed by Time magazine already in 1952, when telegenic Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen was referred to as the “first televangelist”.

Televangelist Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church, a megachurch in Houston, Texas

Televangelist Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church, a megachurch in Houston, Texas

National Religious Broadcasters

An association of American Evangelical Protestant religious broadcasters, the National Religious Broadcasters, was founded in 1944.


Radio (1920s-onwards)

Christianity has always emphasized preaching the gospel to the whole world, taking as inspiration the Great Commission. Historically, this was achieved by sending missionaries, beginning with the Dispersion of the Apostles, and later, after the invention of the printing press, included the distribution of Bibles and religious tracts. Some Christians realized that the rapid uptake of radio beginning in the 1920s provided a powerful new tool for this task, and they were amongst the first producers of radio programming. Radio broadcasts were seen as a complementary activity to traditional missionaries, enabling vast numbers to be reached at relatively low cost, but also enabling Christianity to be preached in countries where this was illegal and missionaries were banned. The aim of Christian radio was to both convert people to Christianity and to provide teaching and support to believers. These activities continue today, particularly in the developing world. Shortwave radio stations with a Christian format broadcast worldwide, such as HCJB in Quito, Ecuador, Family Radio’s WYFR, and the Bible Broadcasting Network (BBN), among others.

In the U.S., the Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of revival-tent preaching in the Midwest and South, as itinerant traveling preachers drove from town to town, living off donations. Several preachers began radio shows as a result of their popularity. One of the first ministers to use radio extensively was S. Parkes Cadman, beginning in 1923. By 1928, Cadman had a weekly Sunday afternoon radio broadcast on the NBC radio network, his powerful oratory reaching a nationwide audience of five million persons.

Aimee Semple McPherson was another pioneering tent-revivalist who soon turned to radio to reach a larger audience. Radio eventually gave her nationwide notoriety in the 1920s and 1930s and she even built one of the earliest Pentecostal megachurches.

In the 1930s, a famous radio evangelist of the period was Roman Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin, whose strongly anti-Communist and antisemitic radio programs reached millions of listeners. Other early Christian radio programs broadcast nationwide in the U.S. beginning in the 1920s–1930s include (years of radio broadcast shown): Bob Jones, Sr. (1927–1962), Ralph W. Sockman (1928–1962), G. E. Lowman (1930–1965), Music and the Spoken Word (1929–present), The Lutheran Hour (1930–present), and Charles E. Fuller (1937–1968). Time magazine reported in 1946 that Rev. Ralph Sockman’s National Radio Pulpit on NBC received 4,000 letters weekly and Roman Catholic archbishop Fulton J. Sheen received between 3,000 and 6,000 letters weekly. The total radio audience for radio ministers in the U.S. that year was estimated to be 10 million listeners.

Television (1950s-onwards)

Billy Graham was a notable harbinger of the Fourth Great Awakening.

Billy Graham was a notable harbinger of the Fourth Great Awakening.

Although television also began in the 1930s, it was not used for religious purposes until the early 1950s. Jack Wyrtzen and Percy Crawford switched to TV broadcasting in the Spring of 1949. Another television preacher of note was Fulton J. Sheen, who successfully switched to television in 1951 after two decades of popular radio broadcasts and whom Time called “the first ‘televangelist'”. Sheen would win numerous Emmy Awards for his program that ran from the early 1950s, until the late 1960s.

After years of radio broadcasting in 1952 Rex Humbard became the first to have a weekly church service broadcast on television. By 1980 the Rex Humbard programs spanned the globe across 695 stations in 91 languages and to date the largest coverage of any evangelistic program. Oral Roberts’s broadcast by 1957 reached 80% of the possible television audience through 135 of the possible 500 stations. In Uruguay, Channel 4 airs the Roman Catholic Church mass since 1961.

The 1960s and early 1970s saw television replace radio as the primary home entertainment medium, but also corresponded with a further rise in Evangelical Christianity, particularly through the international television and radio ministry of Billy Graham. Many well-known televangelists began during this period, most notably Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Most developed their own media networks, news exposure, and political influence. In the 21st century, some televised church services continue to attract large audiences. In the US, there are Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and T. D. Jakes. In Nigeria, there are Enoch Adeboye and Chris Oyakhilome.

Controversies and criticism

Televangelists frequently draw criticism from other Christian ministers. For example, preacher John MacArthur published a number of articles in December 2009 that were highly critical of some televangelists.

Someone needs to say this plainly: The faith healers and health-and-wealth preachers who dominate religious television are shameless frauds. Their message is not the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is nothing spiritual or miraculous about their on-stage chicanery. It is all a devious ruse designed to take advantage of desperate people. They are not Godly ministers but greedy impostors who corrupt the Word of God for money’s sake. They are not real pastors who shepherd the flock of God but hirelings whose only design is to fleece the sheep. Their love of money is glaringly obvious in what they say as well as how they live. They claim to possess great spiritual power, but in reality they are rank materialists and enemies of everything holy.

— John MacArthur

Similarly, Ole Anthony wrote very critically of televangelists in 1994.

A proportion of their methods and theology are held by some to be conflicting with Christian doctrine taught in long existing traditionalist congregations. Many televangelists are featured by “discernment ministries” run by other Christians that are concerned about what they perceive as departures from sound Christian doctrine.

  • Many televangelists exist outside the structures of Christian denominations, meaning that they are not accountable to anyone.
  • The financial practices of many televangelists are unclear. A 2003 survey by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch indicated that only one out of the 17 televangelists researched were members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
  • The prosperity gospel taught by many televangelists promises material, financial, physical, and spiritual success to believers, which can run counter to several aspects of Christian teaching that warn of suffering for following Christ and recommend surrendering one’s material possessions (see: Jesus and the rich young man).
  • Some televangelists have significant personal wealth and own large properties, luxury cars, and various transportation vehicles such as private aircraft or ministry aircraft. This is seen by critics to be contradictory to traditional Christian thinking.
  • Televangelism requires substantial amounts of money to produce programs and purchase airtime on cable and satellite networks. Televangelists devote time to fundraising activities. Products such as books, CDs, DVDs, and trinkets are promoted to viewers.
  • Televangelists claim to be reaching millions of people worldwide with the gospel and producing numerous converts to Christianity. However, such claims are difficult to verify independently and are often disputed.
  • Several televangelists are very active in the national or international political arena (e.g., Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, John Hagee), and often espouse conservative politics on their programs. Such televangelists may occasionally arouse controversy by making remarks deemed offensive on their programs or elsewhere, or by endorsing partisan political candidates on donor-paid airtime, which runs afoul of the Johnson Amendment’s ban on tax-exempt organizations supporting or opposing candidates for political office.

Televangelists often strongly dispute these criticisms and say they are doing God’s work. They cite declining attendance at traditional church services and the growth of global mass media as factors necessitating the use of television to “fulfill the ‘Great Commission’ of the Gospel of Jesus to the generation of the 21st Century.”

Moral Majority Rhetoric

The rhetoric of Jerry Fallwell was called the Moral Majority. This rhetoric was male centered. It was meant to powerfully reaffirm those on the Christian right, and anger outsiders. It was aimed at evangelical Christians specifically. Although it was not as hypermasculine or militant as rhetoric that would come later, it still had some of those aspects. Its goal was to solidify evangelical Christians to a specific subset of their beliefs, and make them more fundamental. It was also rhetoric designed to convert fundamentalist Christians, previously unpolitical, into active conservatives. The message was aimed more at men but it was meant to have an effect on women as well. Pat Robertson also used Moral Majority rhetoric in his televangelism. Their televangelism was both bolstered by the movement and was used to spread the movement.

In order to push its agenda behind the rhetoric, The Moral Majority became a collection of three intertwined but legally independent organizations in 1979. Those organizations are a political lobby, a legal foundation intended to fight for “Christian” values in the courts, and an education foundation. The leadership network of the national organization was composed of the pastoral network from the Baptist Bible Fellowship, with Fallwell as the head. It had a legislative office near Washington D.C, and published a monthly newspaper called Moral Majority Report. It also had many physical chapters across the nation with the biggest one in 1983 in Indiana. The agenda of the Moral Majority was to politically motivate the Christian right and to advance an agenda described as “pro-family” by the group. Some of the things they opposed were abortion, homosexuality, pornography, the teaching of evolution, communism, and secularism. Some of the things they supported were prayer in schools, public money going to religious schools, a strong national defense, and capitalism. They also worked on every level of their national structure to increase voter registration in fundamentalist churches. They believed that America would only survive under a fundamentalist form of Christianity and warned of America’s downfall.

The Moral Majority disbanded in 1989, having claimed success in their goal of politically motivating Christian fundamentalists. However, the group was struggling financially, and some claimed that their disbandment was at least in part caused by sexual scandals.

Supporters of that Rhetoric

Many Moral Majority members believed in pre-millennialist theology, but most pre-millennialist hard-liners were not members. Indeed many Moral Majority members also  thought that the agenda was doomed, but participated anyway, because of them that means they are on the side of god, even if they thought that was a losing side. The membership was overwhelmingly  white (99%), as well as majority male and majority middle aged. Most of the membership also came from the bible baptist fellowship, though some belonged to other denominations of Christianity in the past. The largest groups formally being Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal. There were no Catholic or formally Catholic members. Membership was split about equally between those with higher education degrees and those without them. They were also found through a survey to not like change. They also had groups that supported their work like the NRA.

Impact of the Rhetoric

In addition to fees and donations, members wrote letters to support the organization’s various causes. Members were found to be more politically involved than their geographic peers and they have been credited, in part, for getting Reagan elected. They have also been credited for the victories of many Republicans to local offices and to the U.S. congress. The organization is credited for politically engaging and motivating Christian fundamentalists.

Senate probe

In 2007, Senator Chuck Grassley opened a probe into the finances of six televangelists who preach a “prosperity gospel”. The probe investigated reports of lavish lifestyles by televangelists including: fleets of Rolls Royces, palatial mansions, private jets, and other expensive items purportedly paid for by television viewers who donate due to the ministries’ encouragement of offerings. The six that were investigated are:

  • Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas;
  • Creflo Dollar and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga;
  • Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas;
  • Eddie L. Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia, Ga; DocuSeries – SEX SCANDALS and RELIGION did a 2011 investigative episode on his alleged sexual misconduct
  • Joyce Meyer and David Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo (exonerated); and
  • Randy White and ex-wife Paula White of the Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa.

On January 6, 2011 Grassley released his review of the six ministries response to his inquiry. He called for a further congressional review of tax-exemption laws for religious groups.

In other religions


The concept of using Internet videos and television to preach has spread beyond its American Evangelical roots. In Islam, the related concept of dawah has also given rise to similar figures who are often described as “Islamic televangelists”. Examples include Moez Masoud, Zakir Naik and Amr Khaled, amongst others. These figures may build on the longstanding da’i tradition but also draw inspiration from Christian televangelists. Similarly to Christian televangelists, critics have argued that some Islamic televangelists may be too political, especially those pandering to fundamental Islamism including the far-right. Critics also claim that many will make significant amounts of money from their work and therefore may not motivated by spiritual or charitable causes.

Examples of well-known Islamic televangelist TV channels include Muslim Television Ahmadiyya, Islam Channel, ARY Qtv and Peace TV. Some of these channels, but not all, have come under scrutiny from national television or communications regulators such as Ofcom in the UK and the CRTC in Canada, with Ofcom having censured both Islam Channel and Peace TV in the past for biased coverage of political events, incitement to illegal acts including marital rape, and homophobia.


Hindu religious leaders and preachers have also utilised practises inspired by Christian televangelism, with this becoming increasingly popular in recent times. The Hare Krishna movement has a strong proselytizing tradition which sometimes extends into the internet and television spheres.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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