As a church in Germany engineers an entire service run by AI, Tim Wyatt speaks to experts in technology and ethics to find out whether Christians should be using tools such as ChatGPT within their ministry
“Dear friends, it is an honour for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany.”
With those words, a bearded man projected onto a TV screen began his sermon in St Paul’s church in the German town of Furth this past June. But the “man” was not actually a person at all. His image, his voice and indeed the content of his sermon – as well as the prayers, songs and psalms elsewhere in the liturgy - were all created by the AI program ChatGPT (and a little assistance from a local theologian, it should be noted).
ChatGPT famously rocketed up to 100m users within just two months of its public launch last year. And it is now far from the only large language model AI program available on the web. Clearly, the Furth experiment was an inevitability and it seems highly likely other pastors and church leaders are also toying with using these new tools to write sermons, prayers, Bible studies and more.
But is that wise? Can God really speak through words written not by a person inspired with the Holy Spirit, but through a machine?
First off, this is not simply the preserve of the IT geeks. Chris Goswami, a Baptist minister and 30-year veteran of the tech industry, who regularly reports on all things AI for this publication, explained that almost anyone with a basic understand of the internet could log into any of the AI websites and simply ask them in normal English to generate a sermon on a certain topic or passage. “That’s not hard. The creativity, if I can call it that, is asking the right question to the AI – putting the right prompt in.”
Adam Graber, a theologian, podcaster and writer on emerging technologies and spirituality, agreed, noting the Furth service was not as far-out as it sounded because the person writing the prompts which led ChatGPT to create the service was a local theologian. “The generative spark was not from ChatGPT, it was from a researcher.” The AI then extrapolated out from the prompts to create a full worship service.
This reality pointed to a key insight, Graber added. Churches which engage with AI in this way will quickly realise they have to adapt in various ways to the technology, “in order to elicit from it the kind of end results that we want”. Certain ways of phrasing questions or prompts, or even certain passages and topics, will render better sermons or Bible studies than others.
The thought of churches unconsciously changing to the needs and whims of a soulless piece of software may horrify some, but Graber noted the same had happened with previous round of technological revolution. Even something as prosaic today as microphones and amplification radically altered how believers worshipped when introduced a century ago, he said – sanctuaries could be larger and congregations bigger. And this in turn had implications for the experience of worship, being one in a thousand with no meaningful access or relationship with the minister, compared to just one in a hundred. Goswami added some more recent examples, such as the replacement of pew Bibles with smartphone apps or the retirement of collection plates thanks to online banking and contactless payments. What unconscious implications might these unnoticed shifts in technology have on our theologies of giving or scripture, he asked.
“We are shaped by our tools,” Goswami said. At first some Christians may resist the creeping influence of AI on church but much like the Luddites at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, this hostility to machines will quickly fade, he predicted.
We can use tech for good and bad, but we can’t use it in a neutral way
Rather than the dramatic example in Furth, Graber believed AI would mostly be present not at the front and centre of worship services, but in more subtle backroom ways. This might be assisting pastors in writing sermons that they go on to deliver themselves from the pulpit.
Some argue the revolution in AI software is nothing new, but simply a new form of technology believers can adopt if they choose and use as they will, much like the printing press or radio were adopted by churches in the past. But Graber warned against a simplistic reading in which all technology was a neutral tool. “We can use tech for good and bad, but we can’t use it in a neutral way. It will always change the habits and the ways that we participate in what we’re doing.”
So what are the ways in which adopting ChatGPT into our church services might begin to shape our worship and faith lives in negative ways? One thing impossible to avoid is that AI makes things up. Chatbots like ChatGPT are prone to giving fluent, convincing but entirely untrue answers to questions and prompts. For instance, when prompted to share what Tim Keller says about the sovereignty of God, ChatGPT provided a highly plausible few paragraphs of summary, ending with a quotation. While it sounded like the kind of thing Keller might have written, a Google search revealed the quote to be made up (and in fact mostly plagiarised from a different writer, John Piper).
ChatGPT can be generally right and specifically wrong
AI technology does not simply search through its trillions of data points to find the ‘right’ answer as a Google search might. Instead, it uses its vast knowledge to predict the most likely words to appear next in response to your query. Sometimes, this can provide an unerringly accurate response, but other times it invents a plausible ‘most probable’ answer, which is technically false. Or as Graber puts it: “ChatGPT can be generally right and specifically wrong…The way that the probabilistic models of ChatGPT work, they’re going to move us towards the most common average ideas.”
A sermon written by an AI cannot simply replace what a preacher does. A good church service is not simply a recitation of accurate truths about God in word, prayer and song – it should respond to the specific context of the congregation. Good ministers have empathy and insight into where their flock are at spiritually, who is suffering, what the vision is. They know what this church heard last week, and where they are heading next, Goswami noted. “That is almost impossible, at this point anyway, to do with AI.”
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Graber said he was worried that pastors would be tempted to start to rely on AI to create content for services, and gradually neglect their own personal study and relationship with God in the process. Some argue the tech will allow church leaders to spend more time on human pastoral tasks because the technical work of drafting Bible study notes or preparing for Sunday services can be done automatically. But Goswami questioned this, arguing the theological half of a minister’s job was necessary to inform the pastoral side.
Despite the myriad of concerns, it seems highly likely AI software is here to stay and therefore every pastor must decide how they will or will not use this new tool. Graber said it was unquestionably helpful at some things, such as brainstorming new ideas. Goswami said he was already using AI tools to assist him in generating Bible study questions.
Do the ends justify the means? Goswami pointed to an evangelistic chatbot called ‘Who Is Jesus?’ which was created several years ago. Even though no human was involved, approximately 150 people had reportedly come to faith through chatting to it, and been connected with a local church. Can we resist this technology if it produced such great fruit?
Graber urged those anxious about where these developments were heading to hold onto the sovereignty of God. While the software engineers who coded ChatGPT could not predict or explain what its complex algorithms would spit out, God knew every word they would say before they generated it. “And so I trust that we as Christians, as we keep in step with the Spirit, can bring systems like this into alignment with what God is doing.”
How should humanity flourish in an AI-dominated world? Find out on the latest episode of The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable? as the founder of the ethical AI institute Professor Nigel Crook debates acclaimed neuroscientist Anil Seth. Watch their discussion in full from 8 September at thebigconversation.show