Ed Stetzer: What to Make of AI

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Today you can’t always assume that’s the case. Artificial intelligence (AI) has already changed the world, and many of its future implications are still on the horizon. But while the buzz around the possibilities of AI has found a stride since the release of ChatGPT, AI has been around long before ChatGPT, impacting our lives in profound ways, even though we may not always be aware of it.

In my November/December 2021 column, I wrote about the parallels between 1968 and current realities, from social unrest, to the Avian Flu (1969) and COVID-19, and more. But there’s one I didn’t mention.

The year 1968 also gave us an early look at the potential of AI run amok with the sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film reveals how HAL 9000, the supercomputer on the spaceship Discovery One, developed the capabilities of a thinking, sentient being. HAL (for Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer) became autonomous and turned on the crew after realizing their plan to disconnect the computer because of a malfunction. The rogue computer kills all except David Bowman who successfully disconnects it.

Fast-forward to today and you have more than a few people pondering whether something like this might be possible. Just ask Siri to “open the pod bay doors” (a famous line from the movie), and see what response you get. The question for us as Christians is therefore, how is AI changing the nature of humanity and ministry, and how should the church respond?

Responding to AI

The potential abuse of AI is one of the core issues driving the recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in Hollywood. It is upending how professors and teachers treat plagiarism in their classrooms. It is exponentially increasing productivity, reducing brainstorming, editing and content creation times. It is increasingly common as a first line of defense in treating mental health. It impacts industry, commerce and even government surveillance of its citizens in nations like China.

I recently interviewed Kenny Jahng, editor-in-chief at ChurchTechToday.com, who points out the new development with AI today is Generative AI, which uses natural language processing, so you no longer have to learn code or be a computer geek to use the tools. You can simply use English or whatever your language is to give prompts to get the information. Then, AI processes the information and brings it back to you in the language that you can understand.

The church can’t afford to sit this one out. We have to “play” in the arena of AI. In fact, you already do so every day, for example, when you use your GPS, when you interact with bots on a website, and when you e-pay online. Even something as routine as your social media browsing is an interaction with AI. Technology has always offered ways to improve life. The Bible and commentary a pastor uses for sermon preparation are both printed through technology that traces its lineage to the printing press. Now we have Logos and other platforms to help us do exegetical work digitally in a time-saving way.

In addition, we also need to avoid the other extreme of the uncritical use of AI tools. It’s not insignificant that Elon Musk and over 1,000 other tech leaders called for a halt to AI development for six months after ChatGPT-4 was released. The FOLO (Fear of Looming Obsolescence) is real today.

Ethical Concerns for the Church

One real concern is the loss of personal, pastoral engagement and the dependance on tools more than God’s Spirit. There is no substitute for being with God’s people and knowing the sheep you shepherd, and there is no substitute for spending time in prayer and study of a text to hear from God.

In the article “Brave New World” in this issue, read about the church in Germany whose entire service was powered by AI. Here’s a sample:

“In June 2023, over 300 people lined up outside a 19th-century church in Fürth, Germany, to attend a special service. On the surface, this might not seem remarkable (except for the number of people interested in going to church in post-Christian Europe), but this event was unique because the church service was powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The 40-minute sermon included text generated by OpenAI’s ChatGPT and was led by avatars on a screen hung above the altar. The experience had many people asking, Is this a glimpse of what the church will look like in the future?”

This brings to mind Ian Malcolm’s observation in the movie Jurassic Park: “Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something.” I recently asked AI to draft a sermon on a passage from Philippians 2. And, surprisingly, it was actually a pretty decent sermon. But it was not something I would ever use, because it skips the intimacy with God, the time in his Word, and the realities of the specific audience to whom I am speaking. This flies in the face of the very thing God did for us when Jesus was incarnated and lived among us.

Related to the concern of a lack of personal or pastoral engagement and the overdependence on tools is a concern about transparency in attribution. Any time a pastor passes on something as his own that is not, it’s an integrity issue. It’s one thing to ask AI to help with sermon title ideas; it’s another to replace the study of God’s Word, and the work of the Holy Spirit, with the collective ideas from the digital space pulled together by AI. When it is a tool for preparation, that is one thing. When it is the source of inspiration and content, that is quite another.

A third concern is the issue of hallucinating. AI hallucinates in that it doesn’t always get the information correct when responding to prompts. For example, I was once quoted by an AI bot as saying something J.D. Greear actually said. We should never attribute a quote or depend on statistics provided by AI without checking it in other sources. What’s more, as the disclaimers in resources like ChatGPT remind us, AI is prone to giving other false or incomplete information.  

Opportunities Going Forward

In addition to the concerns that AI raises, it also provides many new opportunities for the church and the gospel.

1. AI offers a powerful way to save time.

It can offer ideas for things like compelling announcements, event promotions and titles for sermons. You would need to take those and vet them through responsible people, but ideation can be helped this way. I’ve found AI to be a very helpful brainstorming tool. Instead of staring at a white board or a blank sheet of paper for ideas to come, AI bots can help get the creative juices flowing—though again, it is a good starting point, not a one-stop shop.

2. AI can serve as a research assistant or editor.

A youth pastor can ask for information on Gen Z to help understand the younger generation. A pastor can ask about current levels of anxiety and stress among people. The information gained can be part of developing knowledge for the leader, as long as you don’t rely only or even primarily on AI for your research, but see it as one of several resources. Jahng gives this example: Imagine you have a new, bright young seminary student. That student is your intern and does research for you, edits and more. You wouldn’t take a seminary student intern’s work and just use it, but you can use their help in this way. Think of AI more like that.

3. AI can help in relationship development as long as it doesn’t replace relationships.

The local church involves feet and faces, not just electrons and avatars. But AI can help us in the assessment of membership, needs and the demographics of a community to help think about ways to do outreach. It can provide translation for your website and other resources if, for instance, Spanish is a predominant second language. It can produce drafts of relevant online ads and social media posts.

You can also add an AI virtual assistant to your website that answers basic questions like service times or where to go for more help. This way you have a response available 24/7. 

Practicing Discernment

I actually asked ChatGPT to give ways AI can help a local church to reach its community. After listing some good ideas it concluded with this: 

“It’s important to note that while AI can be a powerful tool for outreach, it should complement and enhance human efforts rather than replace them. Personal connections, empathy and community involvement remain essential in building meaningful relationships and expanding the reach of a local church.”

That’s good advice. Whether or not AI will keep giving that disclaimer, it’s one we should remember. As we learn more about AI, let’s be wise about its issues while maximizing our impact with its help. 

Further Reading:

* AI and the Church Resources at Gloo.us/ai

* Unlock the Power of AI: The Ultimate ChatGPT Starter Guide for Pastors by Kenny Jahng

* AIForChurchLeaders.com

* ChurchTechToday.com

* GlobalMediaOutreach.com

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