As our culture grapples with social, political and economic questions posed by the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence (AI), the church is called into a conversation on adaptation and resilience.

In many ways AI will be an asset. These tools will allow resource-constrained ministries to communicate, teach and preach more effectively. They provide viable solutions to technical challenges. However, AI tools produce an experience of endless personalization that stands in contrast to the Lutheran priority of community and liturgy. As these tools advance, churches must initiate a conversation that incorporates both pragmatic and theological considerations.

Though we can’t predict with certainty how AI will reshape the church, our task is clear: church leaders must assume an active role in exploring this transformative technology rather than being passive observers of its development.

Many have asked how we might continue with digital ministry in a post-pandemic church. At a practical level, generative AI could serve as a digital ministry assistant, creating and curating digital content and communications.

Among the most accessible uses for AI is creating content based on a sermon. Every week preachers compile thoughtful sermons that are heard by only a fraction of the church’s members. According to the Pew Research Center, only 33% of active mainline Protestants attend church every week. AI tools might share sermon themes with the rest of the community while helping those who attend worship view lectionary texts through a different lens.

ChatGPT, the most widely adopted generative AI tool, can create a newsletter article summarizing a lectionary passage and a sermon manuscript. With these inputs it can create Tweets, Facebook posts and even text messages. Other AI programs, such as DeepAI or Canva’s Text to Image, can use these same text inputs to create images for Instagram or graphics for a digital video. Some AI platforms, such as Podcastle and Speechify, can even use the text to create audio files for use in podcasts.

In each example AI takes a pastor’s reflections and contextualizes them into a digital format to extend the conversation beyond the sanctuary. A ministry can circulate this content near the end of a week, to introduce the Scriptures and sermon for an upcoming Sunday, or on a Monday morning, to augment the messages heard from the pulpit. Whether you’re initiating a conversation or continuing a dialogue, AI is best used when its outputs facilitate discussion across a community.

We know AI has a practical use in the work of the church. We also know it can create personalized experiences that challenge commitment to a faith community.

Even as AI becomes our assistant, it challenges the communal foundations of the church. AI is built on the promise of perpetual personalization. The true appeal of ChatGPT, for example, is not that it can answer a question but that it can create a unique answer based on the specifics of any prompt. Ministries may use AI to create content for their community, but individual church members will use it to generate content for their own consumption. In the best-case scenario AI would facilitate communal conversations. But it could also tempt individuals to bring questions to ChatGPT instead of their faith community.

Remember, AI tools can be approachable and thought-provoking conversation partners. AI can do more than analyze a Bible verse; it can provide convincing answers to the big questions about meaning and purpose. These tools can help you to find a sense of vocational identity, assuage your anxieties and advise you on how to think about longings, losses and grief. Having ingested nearly all sacred texts, countless commentaries and innumerable devotionals, AI systems may come to function as automated chaplains, available at all hours of the day. In one worst-case scenario, as AI tools become more available and responsive than other community members are, people might come to rely on it for spiritual sustenance instead of the church.

With every output it generates, AI conditions us to expect speed and personalization, preferences that clash with public, liturgical worship. When we gather as a church, we slow down to partake in the shared work of the people that characterizes our liturgy. Through word, song and sacrament, we step outside ourselves, if only for a moment. Given this tension, AI might push our culture further from the church.

Conversely, some people living in a post-ChatGPT culture may find respite in their faith communities. Liturgical worship may become a balm to those worn out by the frenetic pace of an AI-saturated world. To gather as a faith community may become a welcome act of resistance for those with greater access to personalized content than to other people.

Whether considering a best- or worst-case scenario, we should be skeptical of definitive pronouncements about the future of AI. Predictions on the development of new technologies tend to be wildly inaccurate, and AI will be no different. For now, we know it has a practical use in the work of the church. We also know it can create personalized experiences that challenge commitment to a faith community. Above all we must recognize that this technological development is accelerating. At times we may be reluctant to move quickly, but the church needs a voice in this conversation and our ministries urgently need to find that voice.

Ryan Panzer
Ryan Panzer is a learning and leadership development professional in the technology industry and the author of Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture (Fortress Press, 2020).

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