Artificial Intelligence is here to stay, says Andy du Feu. The onus is on us, as Christians, to get to grips with the moral, ethical and spiritual implications. Here’s his top three tips for engaging in this brave new world

AI vicar 01

Source: Image generated by AI (midjourney)

“Sorry for the late notice, but any chance you could preach on Sunday night?”

I’m a go-to kinda guy, so it’s always going to be a “yes”, regardless of how hectic life might be. Only, the rules have changed.

So, I turned to Chat GPT.

“Write a sermon on Mark 11:1-11.”

Before my eyes, a sermon began to emerge, like a bewitched parchment in Harry Potter. Mischief managed, indeed.

The opening was tidy:

“Today’s Gospel reading is from Mark 11:1-11, which is a story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. This event is known as the Triumphal Entry, and it marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.”

At eight paragraphs, including the reference to Holy Week, it was perfect for my Anglican church. 

While AI can write a song in the style of Elevation Worship, it doesn’t know how to worship

Before I go on, I need to confess. Artificial Intelligence categorically did not preach for me, nor did it produce the whole message that I gave. It was a stunt. An exploration. A reflection on ministry in this season of change. You can catch up on my message here as proof!

OpenAI’s ChatGPT platform has hit the headlines for everything from eliminating human jobs to concerns over plagiarism at universities. It was trained on mind-boggling amounts of data, and generates a response to inputs, learning as it goes. It can answer theological questions and did a decent job of summarising the biblical text that I gave it, drawing out applications that newly qualified vicars would be proud of.

Growing pains

You may be familiar with the sigmoid curve, which illustrates the life cycle of all things, whether the latest gadget or clothing line, an organisation, or even a living being. The early stages are uncertain. Toddlers get scraped knees as they learn to take those first steps, but growth in the teens is rapid, preparing to launch into the adult world. Ultimately, both excitement and growth dwindle until decline sets in.

Where is AI on this curve? The scary thing is if we are at the pre-toddler stage where the baby is exploring rolling over onto their tummy – exhilarating and full of potential, yet knowing we haven’t seen anything yet.

The opening was tidy, but the eight paragraph sermon completely missed the point of what I saw in the text as I prepared

If I was preparing the message again, I would have been more specific, for example, “…and write the sermon in the style of Canon J. John.” I’m sure it would have thrown in a joke about donuts for good measure. In the future, we will have digital beings potentially indistinguishable from humans, with the AI text delivered in the style and voice of whoever you want.

The reality is that AI has already arrived in church, and students at Moorlands Bible College have been wrestling with the ethical and theological implications of this. One master’s student wrote his dissertation on whether an AI system could preach in an evangelical church. As an AI guru, he was well placed to address that question, even training his own AI system to preach a Billy Graham sermon in his own voice. 

We believe that theology has something to say to AI. Only, AI is not a passive congregation. It heckles back. The more data it is fed, the more powerful its voice, comprehensive its approach, and persuasive its arguments. It is legion.

Imagine ChatGPT having access to every single social media account within your congregation or organisation. “Write an encouraging message that responds to the current situations of every member of City Church.”

Disturbing is an understatement.

Facing the future

Despite Italy putting a ban on ChatGPT and tech leaders like Elon Musk suggesting pressing pause while we allow humanity to catch up with the moral and ethical consequences, AI has been around for some time, and is here to stay. Throwing out machine learning wholesale would be to rip up much of the fabric of modern society. It just isn’t going to happen.Given the challenges, I want to suggest three things you can do to “deal with it” if you are involved in church leadership:

First, there is space for ChatGPT in preparing to teach and preach, offering some really useful tools. The reality is that Bible software is increasingly fused with AI. But it needs careful handling. Remember the limitations.

Second, get to know your techies. They are the new gatekeepers – moderators of the social media accounts and coders who will likely know more than you. Ask them to look into things for you, and listen to their thoughts.

Thirdly, open up discussion with others on this. Consider the impacts of AI on those around you and explore the ethical challenges you can see, that you might be able to face it rather than hope it will simply blow over. 

Many people will be satisfied with AI’s interpretation of the Bible, but the significance is in its limitations. AI cannot replace the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit. It can’t wait on God and hear from him. The eight paragraph sermon that AI generated for me completely missed the point of what I saw in the text as I prepared to speak.

The fact is that, while AI can write a song in the style of Elevation Worship, it doesn’t know how to worship. It fundamentally is not human, nor can it do anything more than simulate spirituality.