How Artificial Intelligence Will Shape the Church
The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 176
The news has been filled with stories of the amazing things that artificial intelligence (AI) can do. In recent months, we’ve seen everything from digital images to whole pop songs created by AI. Some of the results have been interesting–including a short-lived phase of everyone posting their AI-generated profile pics. Some of the results are hilarious. How can you not love a baroque painting of a racoon queen?
But perhaps no AI tool has gotten more attention recently than ChatGPT, an open-source tool currently in public beta testing that uses natural language processing to generate human-like responses. It can write song lyrics, give you advice on what to do on your next vacation, and even write business plans. Some users have tried pushing the tool to its limit by seeing if it could get into law school by passing the bar exam (it passed), medical school (it passed), and even getting an MBA from Wharton School of Business (also passed).
As artificial intelligence grows in prominence and ability, pastors might start to wonder: exactly how good is an AI sermon? Beyond this question, is AI something pastors should embrace or reject? How will artificial intelligence shape ministry in the years to come?
Subscribe below to never miss an episode.
It’s hard not to feel a bit like Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel asking, “What is Internet anyway?” on the Today Show in 1994. All of our guesses about how artificial intelligence will shape our world and our ministries from our vantage point right now are simply that: guesses. I feel certain that I’ll cringe in a decade if I go back and read this article.
But despite the uncertainty, it’s worth exploring the question and beginning to develop a framework for thinking about AI tools, what their limitations are, and how we may be able to use them in God-honoring and Kingdom-centric ways.
But before we dive into the pro’s and cons of artificial intelligence, let’s assess how ChatGPT does at putting a short sermon together.
I gave the following prompts: “Write a sermon about Ephesians 4.”
The first output was five very short paragraphs. So I gave it a little more direction: “Make it longer and more conversational. Include some anecdotes and jokes.”
This is the transcript it created.
“Good morning, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ! Today, we are going to delve into the rich wisdom of Ephesians 4. This chapter is a treasure trove of guidance for how to live a life that is pleasing to God and a blessing to others. So, buckle up and get ready for a journey of discovery!
Now, I don’t know about you, but I love a good road trip. And when it comes to the Christian life, Ephesians 4 is like a GPS system, showing us the way to live a life worthy of our calling as believers in Christ. You see, the first verse of the chapter says, ‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. That’s like hitting the “start” button on our spiritual GPS.
But, have you ever been driving along and your GPS says, ‘take a left turn in 500 feet’? And you’re like, ‘what?! I’m not going to take a left turn! That’s not the way I normally go!’ Well, that’s kind of how I feel sometimes when God gives me direction in my life. But, just like with a GPS, we need to trust that the path God has for us is the best one, even if it takes us in a different direction than we expected.
So, what does it mean to live a life worthy of our calling as believers in Christ? Well, Ephesians 4 gives us some key traits to focus on. Verse 2 says, ‘Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.’ Now, let me tell you, if I had a nickel for every time I had to work on being humble, I’d be a wealthy man! But seriously, humility is a vital part of our spiritual journey. It means putting others before ourselves and recognizing that we’re all in this together. And when we do that, we’ll find that we have more joy and peace in our relationships with others.
And then there’s gentleness. This is a quality that I’ve learned to appreciate more as I’ve gotten older. You know, when I was younger, I thought gentleness was a weakness. But now, I see that it’s a strength. It takes a strong person to be gentle, especially in a world that often values aggression and brute force. And when we practice gentleness, we show others the love of Christ in a tangible way.
So, let’s review: We’re to be humble and gentle, and we’re to have patience and bear with one another in love. And I know, that’s a tall order! But, if we keep our focus on Jesus and the work He’s doing in us, we’ll find that these qualities become more and more natural for us.
Another key aspect of living a life worthy of our calling as believers in Christ is using our gifts for the good of others. Verse 7 says, ‘But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.’ You see, God has given each of us unique gifts and abilities, and He wants us to use them to serve others and build up the body of Christ. So, if you’re feeling a bit lost, ask God to reveal your gifts to you, and then use them to bless others.
And finally, Ephesians 4 reminds us of the importance of leaders in the church. Verse 11 says, ‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.’ Now, I have to admit, I’m a big fan of good leaders. And I think we can all agree that having strong leaders in the church is crucial for our growth and development in our faith. These leaders help guide us, teach us, and equip us to fulfill our calling and serve others. So, let’s pray for our leaders and support them as they serve the body of Christ.
In conclusion, Ephesians 4 is a powerful chapter that gives us guidance for living a life that honors God and serves others. We are to be humble, gentle, patient, and bear with one another in love. We are to use our gifts for the good of others and support our leaders as they serve the body of Christ. So, let us strive to live out these truths in our daily lives, and bring glory to God.
As we close, I want to leave you with this thought: When we live a life worthy of our calling as believers in Christ, we become a beacon of hope in a dark world. We show others the love of Christ in tangible ways, and we bring glory to God. So, let us press on and live a life worthy of our calling!
And with that, I want to thank you for being here today. May God bless you and keep you, and may His face shine upon you and give you peace. Amen!”
Well. That is a sermon! It’s not very good. So, pastors, your job is safe… for now.
Admittedly, perhaps I could have pushed it to be more insightful, and write something longer. When preached, it’s only about five minutes.
It has all the character of a sophomoric miniature sermon written by a high school student tasked with preaching in youth group–but with better grammar. It isn’t making deep connections, giving good context, or even making good jokes! But it does piece together a coherent, generally accurate, and “positive” sermon.
While I don’t think artificial intelligence is going to be replacing your sermon preparation time in the near term, I do think it’s worth reflecting on artificial intelligence and its implications for the church. We are most certainly on the front edge of this shift, and the impact will only grow over the coming decade. The 2020’s and 2030’s will be characterized by the emergence of A.I. tools for everyday consumer use, and the church will be included in that.
With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to consider three shortcomings of artificial intelligence, and why it’s good news for pastors. I’ll also share three reasons to be optimistic about the positive role artificial intelligence may play in the future of your church.
Shortcomings of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (at least for now) still feels sophomoric and lacks depth and insight
Admittedly, this is the one point that is most likely to change. The quality of writing from A.I. is improving at an exponential rate. I can foresee a day when artificial intelligence is able to write curriculum, lessons, and devotionals that provide insightful commentary on Scripture. After all, the results are only as good as its inputs. The more it is “fed” quality scholarship into its dataset, the better it will become at putting together quality content.
However, my experience to date is that most content from artificial intelligence is akin to the “uncanny valley” referenced in computer graphics. One of the most famous examples of this is the digital version of Dwayne Johnson in The Mummy Returns movie.
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
When you look at this rendering of the Rock, you can tell that it’s supposed to look like a human, but you cringe because it doesn’t look quite human. Graphic artists call this the “uncanny valley.” It’s realistic, but not true to life.
Even today, CGI has not quite achieved the ability to trick humans into believing that a CGI person is real (think Princess Leia in Rogue One). It’s getting better, but not fully there yet. Likewise, writing from artificial intelligence in a very literal sense lacks a soul. And while you can’t point to any one sentence and say, “that’s not very human-sounding!” in the aggregate, it’s easy to see through. This might change, but it may be many years before artificial intelligence will be able to come off as inspiring, wise, or insightful in tone.
As we’ll discuss below, the best application for A.I. writing for the foreseeable future will be in things that don’t matter much–think social media posts, captions, and short-form emails.
Artificial Intelligence can’t respond to the Holy Spirit’s prompts in the moment
Anyone who has ever preached a sermon knows how important it is to be in tune with the Holy Spirit before coming to the pulpit. This isn’t a lecture or a keynote speech. Your job is to instruct, exhort, even admonish, if necessary. Therefore, it’s critical that you be open to what the Spirit may give you to say in the moment that isn’t “on script.”
Artificial intelligence will never be able to discern in the moment what needs to be said. Even if it could write a sermon that was insightful, it could never be inspired. By God’s grace, we believe that the words of a preacher or teacher are anointed by Jesus for the specific people in the room at the moment they’re being spoken.
Take comfort in knowing that you are in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit, and that can never be true for ChatGPT or any other artificial intelligence tool.
Artificial Intelligence can’t replace warmth, empathy, and pastoral care
There is a version of the future where artificial intelligence tools exist to answer questions about mental health, and give non-professional advice on how to deal with emotional problems. It may even be true that in the future, A.I. will be able to give some actually helpful advice for people in crisis. But right information isn’t the only thing hurting people need.
When people are in a crisis, they want human connection. Over the course of the pandemic, the culture tried its best to convince us that “Zoom Christmas” was just as good as real Christmas. But it’s not true. We are designed by God to need human connection; we want warmth, eye contact, smiles, and that intangible feeling that someone is truly in-tune with your emotions at a visceral level.
As the world fills up with artificial intelligence, your role as a pastor will become more valuable, not less. No one wants a robot at their deathbed or when they’ve gotten a terminal illness. No one wants ChatGPT to cheer them up when their marriage is about to end in divorce. They want an incarnational experience of love and support.
Positive Framework for Applying Artificial Intelligence in Church Ministry
Artificial Intelligence is a category, not a singular tool.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the 1994 clip from the Today Show when Bryant Gumbel asks, “What is Internet?” In the clip, he conflates email with the Internet generally. In one sense, email is an internet thing, but it isn’t “the Internet.” In those early days, it was difficult to differentiate between “Internet” and specific tools or applications.
We are in a similar phase with artificial intelligence today. ChatGPT is one tool, DALL-E 2 is a different tool. One is a language tool, the other makes A.I. art. Therefore, some A.I. tools will be more valuable than others for the church, just as some websites are more valuable than others.
There will be honorable applications of the technology, as well as dishonorable ones. Pastors would do well to be relatively agnostic about artificial intelligence in these early days. Be open to exploring positive uses, but don’t accidentally fall into unethical uses.
Artificial Intelligence will expedite repetitive tasks in ways that create margin for you to do more and better ministry
The most predictable use of artificial intelligence in the church will be for the creation of content such as bulletins, social media posts, and newsletter-type emails. It won’t be long before it will also be able to create simple graphics, or automatically put your ProPresenter slides together based on your sermon notes. Tools like this are already emerging, and will only improve.
We should welcome these types of tools. Your church’s bulletin isn’t better if Linda or ChatGPT puts it together, just like your bulletin wouldn’t be better if you used a manual printing press instead of a Xerox machine to produce it.
The bad news is that if you’ve got lots of staff who fill their days with “busy work” to justify their salaries, these people will need to either reorient how they spend their time or will be replaced by software. The good news is that the highest-impact ministry isn’t spent putting the bulletin together or formatting your curriculum into a lesson plan template. Ministry is about the “soft skills” that we already mentioned that artificial intelligence cannot duplicate, ever.
Leadership isn’t make-work. It’s life-on-life development of people. If you’ll embrace simple uses of this emerging technology, it will undoubtedly make you a better leader and pastor. It’s yet to be seen when church-specific tools will be truly ready for prime time (think old school Fellowship One or Shelby versus Panning Center Online). The early tools may be clunky or not a good investment, but this will surely evolve quickly once they become mainstream.
Artificial Intelligence is not outside of God’s sovereignty
There has never been a technology that has escaped the purview of the King who sits on the Heavenly Throne. Therefore expect that God may use it in ways that might surprise you. It is perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of artificial intelligence in these early days. But I encourage you to keep an open disposition, and be willing to explore how God might use new tools to reach new people with the Gospel.
At the end of the day, the mission of the Church was, is, and always will be to make and mature disciples of Jesus. Until He returns, it is incumbent on us to use every tool we can in God-honoring ways to reach every person with the Good News.
There is no doubt that we are in the infant days of consumer-level artificial intelligence. This day has been coming for years, and don’t be surprised as it begins to snowball in the months and years to come. Artificial intelligence will change your life in ways you can guess, and in ways you cannot imagine right now. But God is always at work, and He is ready to use you and any tool at your disposal to accomplish His purposes.
BONUS: Watch this episode on YouTube.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).