AI and the Church: A Brave New World

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 above the altar. The experience had many people asking, Is this a glimpse of what the church will look like in the future?

While AI has been a presence behind the scenes in our everyday lives for years, many people don’t understand what it is exactly. In the simplest terms, AI is the ability of machines to perform tasks that are typically associated with human intelligence, such as learning and problem-solving. There are two major forms of AI: “specific” and “general.” Specific AI, also known as narrow or weak AI, refers to systems that mimic humans engaging in a particular task. On the other hand, general or strong AI tries to mimic humans more broadly. 

When viewed solely as a tool, AI can be seen as a gift from God to help pastors and churches in many practical and time-saving ways: sermon research, chatbots on websites, social media content creation, etc. However, some Christians view the development of AI as an attempt by the creation to become the Creator. As recently as last August, Pope Francis issued this warning: “The urgent need to orient the concept and use of artificial intelligence in a responsible way, so that it may be at the service of humanity and the protection of our common home, requires that ethical reflection be extended to the sphere of education and law.”

So, is AI an exciting new tool that can help advance the kingdom of God, or is it the coming of Skynet, the evil super system from The Terminator? And what role will the church play? That is what Gloo, a platform that serves as a hub for church resources, wanted to learn through its AI & the Church Survey.

[Editor’s note: Outreach Inc., parent company of Outreach magazine, recently joined Gloo.]

THE SURVEY

Gloo has been involved in artificial intelligence for the better half of the last decade, according to Steele Billings, director of GlooX and GlooAI Initiatives. The company has been studying how machine learning—systems that have “learned” to execute specific tasks—can help support ministry. 

“All that work has been underneath the surface,” says Billings. “Then, all of a sudden, new technologies have come into existence that have raised this conversation to the point where it was really important for the church to be a part of [it].

“The church tends to lag about 10 years behind the secular world when it comes to technology adoption,” he adds, “but when we look at artificial intelligence, the whole world is a little bit behind. I mean, ChatGPT came out in November 2022. And that’s really when people started to understand more around this idea of generative AI.”

In your opinion, can AI tools help in fostering a deeper spiritual connection within your faith community?

Not sure 36%
Probably not 24%
Probably 18%
Definitely not 16%
Definitely 6% 

To learn where church leaders stand regarding AI, Gloo conducted the AI & the Church survey, which is one piece of Gloo’s initiative of the same name. This project was created to empower the church to responsibly navigate and engage the evolving landscape of AI, and includes multiple components, such as collaborative funding, events, resource hubs, content and participation in a cross-industry working group. 

“The survey was an opportunity for us to say, If we’re going to get really intentional about serving church leaders, then we need to first understand how they feel about AI,” says Billings. 

Gloo took a collaborative approach to creating the 25-question survey by working with industry experts to formulate questions that would gauge church leaders’ understanding of, receptivity to, beliefs about and use of artificial intelligence. Gloo promoted taking the survey by teaming up with partner organizations, including Outreach Inc.

“It could become really easy to get a bias when you do a survey like this because it’s a snowball sampling,” Billings explains. “So, it was really important to diversify the ways in which we sent it out.” 

The survey covered a variety of topics related to the church and AI, from its current uses in ministry to moral and ethical implications. From June 22–July 26, 2023, 1,573 people took the online survey, 83% of which were church leaders and 17% were lay church members.

 

How significantly could AI tools potentially improve your efficiency or effectiveness in the work you specifically do for your church?

Moderately 25%
Not at all 21%
Slightly 21%
Quite a bit 19%
Significantly 14%

Here are the results:

* Demographics. The majority of people in the survey are men (73%). Over half of the respondents (53%) identify as white, 29% say they are multicultural, and 8% are Black. Age-wise, 44% are baby boomers, 33% are Gen Xers, and 14% are millennials. 

* AI Emergence. When it comes to the rise of AI, a majority of respondents (54%) are somewhat to very uncomfortable, while 32% are somewhat to very positive or excited. 

* AI Comprehension. Over half of survey takers (63%) report they are comfortable in their understanding of AI, saying they are fairly to somewhat knowledgeable; however, 28% say they are only slightly or not knowledgeable at all. Only 9% considered themselves to be very knowledgeable.

* Concerns About AI. Fifty-four percent of respondents say they are either quite concerned or extremely concerned about ethical or moral issues regarding using AI in the church. Others say they are slightly to somewhat concerned (40%), and 5% claim not to be concerned at all.

* AI Use. Sixty-two percent state they rarely or never use AI in their work, 19% cite occasional use, with another 19% saying they use AI on a weekly or daily basis.  

* AI in the Local Church. Forty-three percent report they are somewhat to very uncomfortable with the idea of using AI in the local church, but 27% say they are somewhat to very positive or excited. The remaining 30% are neutral with no strong feelings either way. 

* AI in Ministry. Of the respondents, 41% believe that the church should moderately leverage AI in ministry, while 9% assert the church should enthusiastically leverage the technology. Seventeen percent hold that the church should resist the use of AI in ministry, and 7% believe the church should condemn it. Just over a quarter (26%) of everyone who took the survey have a neutral position on the use of AI in ministry.

To what extent are you concerned about ethical or moral issues related to using AI in the church?

Extremely concerned 29%
Quite concerned 24%
Somewhat concerned 24%
Slightly concerned 16%
Not at all concerned 5%

EVALUATION

According to Kenny Jahng, founder of AIForChurchLeaders.com and editor-in-chief of ChurchTechToday.com, the survey results reveal an interesting and contradictory dynamic in how church leaders evaluate and embrace AI. 

“While church leaders aren’t very knowledgeable about AI—and harbor serious concerns about its risks—they also see real benefits of applying AI in certain areas,” he says. “As with many innovation fronts, AI often evokes fear at first. When 62% say they rarely or never use AI in their work, it is understandable that so many (43%) feel somewhat to very uncomfortable with the idea. But whenever I start to demonstrate practical applications [of AI] to the church leader, intimidation usually turns quickly into inspiration. It is encouraging that over 50% [of respondents] think the church should leverage AI in ministry somehow.”

What surprised Billings the most as he began to dig through the results was the variance, both in respondents’ excitement and in their caution. “On one end, you had a lot of leaders who were saying, ‘Yes, I am already using AI weekly, maybe even daily.’ On the other end of the spectrum were leaders who are saying, ‘I haven’t tried it, but I’m interested in it.’

“Overwhelmingly across the entire audience, the sentiment seems to be a real concern about what [AI] could mean for ministry,” he says. “While it seems like a good opportunity for the church to be involved in the conversation, it’s extremely important that we do it cautiously and that we have full understanding.” 

Jahng, who contributed to the formation of the survey as well as assisted with its distribution, remains concerned that 26% of respondents say they have no plans to develop a policy on AI use despite the high level of concern and opposition to AI in ministry the survey reports.

 “I believe that every [church], whether they support the use of AI tools or are opposed to them, should have a policy to clarify the church’s expectations for staff and volunteers,” he says. “Pastors ignoring the unfolding of AI developments risk facing unintended consequences because AI capabilities will become almost ubiquitously available and integrated across most of the tools used for ministry work.”

Jahng emphasizes that in the near future, church members may be turning to their pastor to find out what the church’s position on AI is.

“Churches have the opportunity to help their people bring thoughtful inquiry to AI in terms of ethics, privacy, attribution, legal and other issues,” he says.

To what extent do you believe that the church should embrace AI?

The church should moderately leverage AI in ministry. 41%
The church should take a neutral stance. 26%
The church should resist the use of AI in ministry. 17%
The church should enthusiastically leverage AI in ministry. 9%
The church should condemn the use of AI in ministry. 7%

NEXT STEPS

For church leaders, experts say the best approach going forward is to study AI, consider its potential, and learn about its possible intended (and unintended) consequences. Jahng suggests pastors and congregants take advantage of the many available resources on AI, such as books, podcasts, articles, conferences and blog posts. 

“Download and read Unlock the Power of AI: The Ultimate ChatGPT Starter Guide for Pastors,” he says. “It explains the basic terms and concepts of AI, and goes through specific use cases for ministry, and recommends tools churches can benefit from immediately.”

Jahng also recommends pastors and their staffers team up with other churches on the journey to explore AI. “Communities like the AI for Church Leaders Facebook group have over 4,000 members and can provide education, inspiration and best practices specific to the ministry context.”

Ministry leaders can also access a growing library of training videos and resources through the AI Discovery Expo Online platform at AIForChurchLeaders.com

“Pastors can go through courses, workshops and other training resources with their staff to get up to speed with the latest developments and tools that can help scale the impact of their church,” says Jahng.

To help the church, Gloo has launched the AI & the Church Hub at Gloo.us/ai, which is curating various resources churches of all sizes can use to improve their AI literacy and application in ministry. Currently, over 6,000 organizations use the hub, and it is available to the 40,000 churches registered on Gloo.

How important do you believe it is for church leaders to teach or preach on AI?

Somewhat important 40%
Not very important 28%
Very Important 17%
Not Important at all 15% 

Another part of the company’s AI & the Church initiative is the Trust Council, a series of working groups to help guide pastors concerning artificial intelligence, says Billings. 

“But this whole conversation actually spans beyond artificial intelligence to digital transformation as a whole, and technology and how it influences ministry as a whole,” he says. “The Trust Council will look at the legal and privacy implications of technology and artificial intelligence. [Also], it will look at the theology of it. We will have experts coming together and leading conversations about what church leaders should do first.” 

One working group recently came up with an assessment that church leaders will be able to take to help them not only understand where they are in readiness, willingness, understanding and education around artificial intelligence, but also where their staff and teams are, and eventually, where their congregants are. 

According to Billings, this assessment will be a good place for church leaders to start. “And it will lead th