Would you go to a church led by and AI pastor?

In June 2023, 300 people attended the first-ever church service led by Artificial Intelligence at a Protestant Church in Germany. Four digital avatars created by an AI technology called ChatGPT led the service. The liturgy consisted of psalms, prayers, and music curated by the AI, as well as a 40-minute sermon on the role of AI in religion. Some people were impressed by the chatbot’s ability to deliver a sermon, while others found it off-putting. A 31-year-old Lutheran pastor, Marc Jansen, said, “I had imagined it to be worse. But I was positively surprised by how well it worked. Also, the language of the AI worked well, even though it was still a bit bumpy at times.”

Stories like this may be about performance art and new technology. But they do reflect how new technology is an unavoidable disruption, even for churches and church leaders. Artificial Intelligence is here—whether or not we are ready for it.

But what exactly does that mean? And why should church leaders care?

How We Got Here: The Rapid Rise of Generative AI

On November 22, 2022, a seemingly non-descript chatbot product named ChatGPT 3.5 was released by a company named OpenAI. The world has been obsessed with AI ever since.

ChatGPT is part of a new generation of computer systems called Generative AI. These tools allow ordinary people with no technical computing skills to interact by typing conversationally, or “prompting.” The bot responds almost magically and provides sensible text or images. Competitors like Google scrambled to release chatbots and image generators. Companies are scrambling to integrate the capabilities into their services. Endless op-eds have been written. Even Congress has held hearings that warn of the potentially catastrophic side effects.

Five Things Church Leaders Need to Know about AI

With such a monumental shift upon us, church leaders need an accurate understanding of the technology and how it will affect the people God calls them to serve.

Here are five things to know about the current generation of AI and what it means for you.

1. Terminator or Auto-Fill? Church leaders should know what modern AI is and is not.

The Terminator is about a dystopian future controlled by an AI overlord named Skynet. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a killer robot sent back in time to stop the rebellion before it starts. Stories of rebel robots and runaway AI go back as far as Isaac Asimov’s Robot books have become a mainstay of popular culture. They also make it difficult to understand today’s AI advances and how it could affect our day-to-day life. 

Generative AI is less like Skynet and more like the predictive text features one sees on their phone or search engines. iPhones and other devices feature a keyboard with autofill features that try to speed up your typing by suggesting the next word you write. When you type in a Google search bar, it provides a list of potential queries for you to choose from. Generative AI feels life-like, but it operates in much the same way.

To better understand what today’s AI is and is not, it is useful to grasp the difference between “Narrow AI” and “General AI.”

Narrow AI

Narrow AI, or weak AI, refers to computer systems that are good at specific tasks but can’t do much else. For instance, Alexa is good at playing songs you request, but struggles with more complex requests. Narrow AI is good at highly specialized areas but can’t do much else.

Artificial General Intelligence

The dream for AI is Artificial General Intelligence, computer systems with human-like abilities to work on diverse tasks. AGI could work as a personal assistant that can understand, learn, and help with various tasks just like a real person. While today’s chatbots may feel surprisingly powerful and eerily interactive, they only work within limited parameters, making them a far cry from true AGI.

What Church Leaders Need to Know

Church leaders need to know that AI is not alive or even intelligent. We can expect to see existing technologies will be augmented, and new technologies developed. Just like previous advances in technology, it will be disruptive. Existing jobs, many of which seemed untouchable by automation, will disappear. Just like with phones, email and social media, humans will develop new ways of interacting. But AI is not conscious, self-aware, or able to completely replace what humans do. 

2. What is Different About Generative AI? Church Leaders Should Understand How This Technology Operates

Within a few weeks of the launch of ChatGPT and image generators like DALL-e, artificially generated content began to litter the internet. Similar leaps are happening with audio and video. How is so much happening so fast?

Modern AI is the result of a marriage between a few recent and powerful improvements in computing, including:

  • Machine Learning (ML): AI that learns from data to make predictions or decisions without explicit instructions.
  • Natural Language Processing (NLP): AI that helps computers understand and work with human language, written or spoken.
  • Large Language Models (LLMs): Advanced AI models trained on lots of text that can, in turn, generate human-like text.
  • Deep Neural Networks: Advanced AI networks patterned after human brains that can learn and understand patterns.
  • Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs): An AI technique for combining real data to create realistic synthetic images.

When you combine powerful computers with sophisticated algorithms, you get our present AI revolution. The possibilities seem limitless, and they are accessible to anyone with internet access.

What Church Leaders Need to Know

AI, like all technologies, is about leverage. We use sticks to move boulders that are too big to pick up. AI allows the average person to leverage powerful machines with massive amounts of data to do things they might not have the time or skills to do otherwise.

AI isn’t perfect. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still stands. ChatGPT 3.5 was built by scraping the entire internet in 2023. That includes peer-researched articles and baseless conspiracy theories. Chatbots have the tendency to “hallucinate,” offering incorrect or even completely fabricated responses.

Church leaders need to know that AI can be beneficial, but it must not be used in a vacuum. For instance, ChatGPT could be used like a research assistant and help summarize articles about the text for a sermon, but, like a human research assistant, it might not be completely accurate.

Church leaders also need to be more wary of the information they and their practitioners interact with online. The technology has already been used to fabricate images for political campaigns. Misinformation and disinformation have been a source of conflict, especially during recent political campaigns and the pandemic. With AI’s capacity to create massive amounts of content, one can expect even more of this in the future.

Church leaders need to learn how to check sources and do due diligence in their research. They need to be aware that their practitioners and the surrounding community are also navigating the same increasingly, sometimes troubled waters.

3. Is It Useful? Church Leaders Can Leverage AI for Certain Aspects of Their Ministry

Whenever a new technology arrives, it feels like some church leaders are quick to laud it, while others try to avoid it. Many church leaders avoided social media, streaming video, and other aspects of internet life until the COVID lockdown. The usefulness of Generative AI is still being explored. For church leaders concerned with how people are spiritually formed, it’s not enough for a tool to be useful. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A church leader needs to consider how using a tool remakes the tool user.

A recent online event on the topic of AI and the church offered a few use cases for pastors and church leaders, including:

  • Writing discussion questions for use in Bible Classes and Small Groups
  • Crafting Bible reading plans based on reading through a book of the Bible in 10-minute blocks
  • Identifying supporting passages of Scripture to be used in worship gatherings
  • Researching biblical and theological topics and providing robust summaries for use in sermon preparation

The practicality seems clear. Preparing sermons and small group gatherings is time-consuming. However, it also provides moments for leaders to meditate on a text and pray for their church. Over the years of church leadership, these hours of preparation contribute to a church leader’s knowledge of Scripture and God himself. Outsourcing these tasks is something that must be given prayerful consideration.

What Church Leaders Need to Know

The best use of AI for Church Leaders is to simplify or eliminate the unavoidable tasks required to run church programs without eliminating the tasks that help church leaders to connect with God, church members, and neighbors.

Here are a few suggestions for tasks AI can speed up, eliminate, or improve:

  • Time Wasters: Used correctly, AI may be able to scale back time intensive tasks. For example, a church leader could map out what they would do with an additional five hours a week, perhaps in prayer or visitation, then research ways to use AI to create that space.
  • Personal Productivity and Organization: Similarly, Generative AI will bring about a suite of new productivity tool. For instance, virtual assistants capable of scheduling meetings and even carrying out basic administrative tasks already exist and will become more valuable and prevalent.
  • Additional Research: Every church leader has a favorite scholar, author, commentary, or church father. Researching beyond the voices one already knows and loves can be hard. AI could be tasked to act as a “research assistant” to unearth additional resources to consider in tasks like sermon or Bible study preparation.
  • Improving visual presentations: Today, large companies and even some churches hire graphic designers to create slide decks and videos for presentations. Companies like Canva, Google, and others are rapidly integrating AI to allow the average user to create more appealing visual presentations.
  • Tracking data: Churches have a lot of data to keep track of, such as members’ contact information, event logistics, and donations. This data is necessary for organizing and communicating, and AI tools will make it easier to manage.
  • Follow-up and reminders: Churches can use email and text messages to remind members and visitors about upcoming events and follow up with new visitors. Automated reminders and replies can be helpful if used thoughtfully and with permission.
  • Content Creation: Churches that embrace digital ministry have an endless array of opportunities to create and share content. Used intentionally, it can build on the in-person discipleship efforts of the congregation. AI-generated content can be used to create images, audio, and video that might not be available to the average pastor otherwise.

4. Ethics of using AI are complicated. Church leaders should be discerning in how they embrace it.

“The ethical implications of artificial intelligence are vast and complex. We must be thoughtful about how we develop and use AI so that it is used for good and not for evil.” – Frank Chen, CEO of Gradient AI

The explosion of misinformation and disinformation that has resulted from the rise of social media is a reminder that digital tools can amplify the ethical difficulties of our society. Generative AI will be even more complicated. Church leaders should understand these ethical issues and must practice discernment in how they use it.

Some of the ethical issues to consider when using AI include:

  • Bias: AI models can be biased, so be careful not to use them in a way that discriminates against people.
  • Privacy: AI models can collect a lot of data about people, so be careful not to invade their privacy.
  • Misinformation: AI models can be used to spread false information, so be careful not to use them to spread lies.
  • Intellectual property: AI models can be used to create new works of art, so be careful to credit the people who created them.
  • Safety: AI models can be used to create harmful content, so be careful not to use them to hurt people.

Church leaders should be at the forefront of the conversation about ethics. We also need to model thoughtfulness and intentionality in how we use it.

What Church Leaders Need to Know

Here are some specific ways church leaders can be more discerning in their use of AI:

  • Learn about the ethical issues related to AI.
  • Research particular AI tools by looking for descriptions and reviews that address their ethics.
  • Explain your use of AI to your congregation.
  • Articulate your congregation’s values about how to use AI.
  • Seek out feedback from your congregation, especially from those who may understand the technology better.

Rather than ignoring or blindly embracing AI, church leaders and local pastors can be shining examples of thoughtful and ethical use of this new technology.

5. Pastors and Churches are Going to Be More Important than Ever.

Across North America, you can find towns that were once the home of thriving industry. New technologies and global trade removed jobs and upended an entire way of life. AI has the potential to do the same for industries like writing, film, marketing and other industries that seem reliant on human creativity. AI applications for everything from telemarketing to writing computer code are being developed. A massive change in our economy and, therefore, our daily life is inevitable.

Church leaders should start asking the question “What can the local church do that others cannot?” More personally, they should ask “What can a pastor do that a robot cannot?”

What Church Leaders Should Know

Acts reveals that the early church responded to the teachings of Jesus economically and communally. As they sought to love their neighbors as themselves, this led some to sell their property and share their profits. It led others to host Dinner Churches, where people of differing socioeconomic backgrounds shared meals, with a preference given to those who were hungry.

AI is going to affect jobs and disrupt the lives of many. Some will do well financially, and others will not. This shift only adds to growing economic inequality. Today, many cities are facing housing crises and a rise in homelessness. At the same time, a seeming uptick in catastrophic events like wildfires, floods, and heatwaves is making many places harder and harder to live.

Church leaders need to know that their role is not simply to manage a religious institution but to help people care for each other in tangible ways. Like the first-century church, modern North America needs the church to act as an “alternate economy” where diverse people, following the self-sacrificing model of Jesus, learn to support each other. Government, business, and the social sector can only do so much. Local churches are responsible for finding new ways to care for each other and their neighbors.

Pastors also need to be aware that North America faces a loneliness epidemic. The conversational nature of generative AI will make it easy to rely on computers for things people used to do. AI can be looked to as a teacher, mentor, advisor, and even a friend. But these interactions cannot replace incarnate relationships. Face-to-face conversations require us to develop interpersonal skills. Talking to another person and trying to make a friend is always a risk, but relationships are the garden in which we grow.

Church leaders must recognize that in a world filled with AI, they have the opportunity to help build relationships and community. Churches have also been the place where marriages are launched, babies are welcomed into the world, and the end of life is mourned and celebrated. Church leaders need to know that AI will push us towards less interaction, and that local congregations led by loving shepherds are more needed than ever.

A Church For Today’s World

“It is certainly true that in the long run that choice is up to us: what we ask our technology to do, what we ask its designers to optimize, what we believe is the good life that we are pursuing together.” 

Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World

AI is here, and what that means remains to be seen. While science fiction has prepared us with stories of killer robots, the reality is that life as we know it will be disrupted. Church leaders have a responsibility to understand what is happening and help their congregations in this transition.

Church leaders also have the opportunity to be a blessing to their flock and congregations to their communities. Christianity is rooted in the belief that God has come among us. In a world where people are isolated and relationships are mediated by technology, the church can be a city on a hill. We can embody an alternative by displaying what it means to live like Jesus, together.

LinkedIn Pinterest
Chris Morton
About the Author

Chris Morton

Chris is the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications, working across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He guides our online publishing, email, social media and other digital communications. Chris helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, serving for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. A graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary's M.A. in Global Leadership, Chris lives in Austin, Texas with Laura, Micah, Phoebe and Dot.