Artificial Intelligence content creators such as ChatGPT will certainly revolutionise almost every kind of work that relies on writing of some sort. But how will it change Christian ministry: particularly sermon creation, essays, articles and even books?
We have already said it will tempt some to cheat, and to do a more sophisticated form of plagiarism than copying and pasting from another’s online sermon. But how could AI be used lawfully and helpfully in ministry?
On the most basic level, it will help not a few preachers with spelling, grammar and usage. Just as spell-checkers and grammar-checkers were built into Word processors in the last few decades, so AI content -creation will likely improve general English usage. It may not write prose like Mencken or Wodehouse (unless you ask it to), but at least we’ll have less people writing your for you’re and flaunt for flout. Computers follow grammar rules all the time, and infallibly remember them, too. That’s good news for grammar pedants like me.
AI will also speed up and automate certain parts of sermon research. We’ve already come a long way from having to use paper lexicons, interlinears, parsing guides, and a mound of exegetical, technical, theological and devotional commentaries spread open on a desk. Software has centralised and sped up the process of finding information tenfold. It’s possible that both AI built into web browsers and future versions of Logos or other Bible software will reduce some of the grind-work of finding what we are looking for.
Further, when we are looking to write sections in our essays or sermons that do not require particular insight, illustration, or personal application, AI content creation may simply be the equivalent of a time-saver: filling out in full sentences what we would either have put in key-words, or had to grind out ourselves.
But here is the great danger. We only think as well as we can write, and vice-versa. When we delegate necessary study to Chat-GPT, we forgo the very process of renewing our own minds with truth. By allowing a machine to do all the heavy-lifting for us, the muscles of our own mind may atrophy, and result in bland, colourless teaching. Preachers have an obligation to study, not just “create content”. The goal of a preacher’s study is sanctification, not merely communication.
There are also several particularly human and spiritual areas of preaching which belong to the domain of a growing, living, Christian preacher, and not to a machine. AI can perform many tasks, but not the most human of them. For example:
- AI can gather information but not give the preacher insight. Insight is the art of seeing into life, not for its factual content, but for its implications, consequences, dangers, and opportunities. AI can gather the insights of millions of people, but it will have none of its own. A preacher is meant to bring insight into his own sermons.
- AI can write accurate sermon material but not give personal applications. A shepherd is given to a group of people among whom he lives. He knows them, their lives, and their trials. His applications are not generic and broad, but poignant and pointed, because he knows the lives of the sheep he pastors. AI can figure out broad and basic applications, but it cannot know the lives of a local congregation.
- AI can write in general, but without an author’s true originality. I know that ChatGPT is smart enough to be able to mimic style and diction. I have over 900 sermons in transcript form on the web, averaging 4000 words each. If ChatGPT harvested those 3.6 million words, it could produce a pretty believable David de Bruyn. That’s not the point. True creation is not just mimicking the way I would say something. An original work is an author’s creation: his poeima. It is a work that displays the mind and meaning of its creator. ChatGPT might write as I would, but the result is not my creation, and were I to read it, I may as well be reading a Spurgeon sermon to my audience.
- AI can persuade, but does not have motives for this persuasion. Though the question of bias within AI is already a hot topic of ethical debate, any bias is part of the programming. AI does not have motives, as we understand them, because it does not have loves. AI does not regard anything as beautiful, and therefore has no affections towards anything. As a communicator, it cannot truly urge us to love, except insofar as its programming allows it to mimic other persuasive appeals. It can write imaginative material, but it does not, and cannot understand what affections should be evoked. This is the domain of the image-bearer of God who occupies the pulpit.
- AI can be intelligent, but not wise. Information is factual; wisdom is skilled application. Information is quantifiable; wisdom is qualitative. A machine can gather and replicate the wisdom of others, but it has none of its own. Wisdom comes from the fear of the Lord. Wisdom comes from meditation and obedience to the Word of God, not from the mere factual recall of the entire canon of Scripture, and all Christian reflection upon it.
In short, preachers and teachers will not be out of a job, as long as they retain insight, application, affective appeals, and wisdom from above. Indeed, the ability of AI to replicate generic teaching may be a timely rod to the back for lazy preachers who were content with serving their sheep generic mush every week. For the lazy, AI will be both a boon and a bane: it will make sermon creation easier, and make their sermons more bland than ever. For the diligent, it will be another advanced tool to make our sermons clearer and more accurate, while freeing us up to wrestle with those spiritual realities we are charged to communicate.