AI will transform how many jobs are done, and will completely replace many others. Tools like ChatGPT will reduce the task of writing to command-line prompts for professions ranging from medicine to law to office administration. The heavy lifting of writing will be done by an increasingly smart machine. How will this affect ministry: those who write, teach and preach the Bible? I suggest a few possibilities.
AI will tempt some to laziness and ‘cheating’. For those tempted to skip the labour of study and original writing, AI will offer such men decently written sermons or Bible studies. This is just the next generation of copying and pasting from the web, except that now the material will be “original”: created from scratch by a machine. Or, if you like, it is the next generation of ghost writing: employing another to write on your behalf, and then taking the credit for the product. Strictly speaking, it is not cheating to have a computer write your sermon for you, for the work is original and ‘commissioned’ by the preacher. But it is cheating in the same way that it was cheating for jocks to pay nerds to write their term papers for them.
AI will tempt the marketers to deepen the phenomenon of fake church. During Covid, we found out that many churches had a quasi-Gnostic view of the human body, and a passive-entertainment view of worship. That is, it made no difference to them if humans were actually present with each other in worship, because to them, live images on a screen are as much the reality of worship as in-person worship. With those views already in place, we are ready for the next level of worship simulations. AI will be able to produce Deep Fake versions of a church’s preacher or pastor preaching either sermons he has written or sermons produced by AI. These can be streamed or played on the big screens on Sunday – for those who want to show up. If worship can be a screen, who can object?
Better yet, AI will be able to harvest the very best public speaking techniques, the most popular preachers’ voices, and the most pleasing faces, and use Deep Fake technology to create an ideal preacher who doesn’t exist outside of cyberspace. Again, he’ll preach sermons written by humans, or by AI, and rack up millions of views, subscribers and followers. The fact that he (or she) is a digital creation will be hated by some, but soon lauded by others as ideal: a preacher who won’t fall into sin, won’t be caught in scandals, and won’t disappoint with hypocrisy. The Robot Pastor will become deeply attractive to many, many people looking for the flawless teacher. If you bought into the worship-can-take-place-on-my-laptop scam, I can’t see how you’ll object to the slick and flawless online worship that AI will serve up.
AI will likely provoke a Luddite backlash, too. While some will love Pastor Skynet, others will ferociously long for the days when they knew their pastors wrote their own sermons. There’ll be a push to establish human originality and authenticity. I don’t doubt that an arms-race of technologies that verify something was not written by AI will ensue in the next months and years. Perhaps some watermark of authenticity will be developed (and verified with a technology like blockchain), which might end up on pastors’ sermons posted online. Perhaps some pastors will return to hand-written manuscripts to prove their humanness. And the presence of bland, AI sermons will likely grow a hunger for preachers that preach without notes. Preachers that appear nearly completely extemporaneous in delivery, drawing entirely on their mind and memory and not on notes that could be sourced from AI, may become the gold standard among Christians reacting against AI.
AI may actually increase biblical illiteracy. As the power to harvest and reproduce biblical data grows with AI, the incentive to learn and retain that data decreases. Take something as simple as the move to phones and screens as the medium of choice for reading the Bible. Before cellphones and tablets, we had to learn the order of the books of the Bible to find our way around in our printed Bibles. I’ve found that many in the younger generation don’t know the order of the books of Scripture, because the dominant media no longer require them to learn them. That’s not necessarily an evil; it just illustrates that automation tends to reduce our dependence upon memory. What does become an evil is when biblical literacy drops below a functional level of basic Christian understanding, because there will always be some AI-powered device in the room that you can ask. Once you do not retain even the basics of Scripture in your own memory, you are less than infantile in the faith. Someone with a ubiquitous AI pastor in their pocket never learns to chew any food; he remains spoon-fed on the milk of the word.
Worse, depending on AI (at least initially) for guidance and counsel may be quite dangerous, spiritually speaking. AI will repeat biblical fact, but lack insight into the person’s life. AI will summarise biblical teachings well, but fail to give appropriate application. AI will be intelligent, but not wise.
Is AI all woe and evil? No, there will certainly be benefits to ministry, as well. I hope to list some of these in the next post, while warning how these benefits need to be used in a disciplined way.