When AI Comes to Church

In January 2019—a full year before the pandemic would dominate the attention of the world—Microsoft made a $1 billion investment in a little-known company called OpenAI. Until this point, artificial intelligence (AI) was mostly a conversation topic for computer nerds or sci-fi fans—a thought exercise for a distant, imagined future. But shortly after OpenAI launched ChatGPT in November 2022, AI rocketed into the present. By January 2023, the software had 100 million users, and by February, a Time magazine cover article dubbed generative AI tools like ChatGPT “the most important technological breakthrough since social media.”

In the short time since ChatGPT launched, rapid advancements in AI have revolutionized various industries, and the church is no exception. As AI becomes increasingly prevalent, pastors are recognizing its potential to enhance their ministry and to help them engage with their congregation in new and innovative ways.

However, church leaders may inadvertently make mistakes that can have unintended consequences for their ministry. By addressing these pitfalls head-on, pastors can harness the benefits of AI while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of their ministry, ultimately strengthening their ability to serve and connect with their community in meaningful ways.

The following are 11 mistakes to avoid.

1. Overestimating AI’s Capabilities

Pastors are increasingly drawn to the promise that AI can streamline administrative tasks, enrich sermon preparation and enhance engagement with their congregation. Who wouldn’t want to save time, create better resources and accelerate church growth with just a few keystrokes? However, miscalculating AI’s capabilities can lead to unrealistic expectations and disillusionment.

AI can indeed assist in analyzing biblical texts, crafting messages and managing routine assignments. However, it falls short of providing the profound, nuanced counsel that pastoral care can demand. Its inability to grasp deeper emotional and spiritual needs underscores the irreplaceable value of human connection in ministry.

Moreover, the reliance on data-driven AI raises concerns about potential biases in the information and content it generates, as the data used for training may reflect cultural biases. In practical experience, the biases that show up in outputs are usually artifacts of generic or unsophisticated prompting. Pastors must navigate these limitations with discernment, ensuring that AI serves as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, their pastoral duties.

Integrating AI into ministry should be viewed as a partnership. Technology enhances the efficiency and reach of pastoral work while pastors maintain the depth of human connection that is fundamental to their role. AI is not a turnkey replacement of functions that the pastor doesn’t like or want to do. One cannot expect to accept outputs wholesale and use them without review or modification.

2. Ignoring Training

With AI being a ubiquitous topic across industries, it’s easy for pastors to become distracted by tips and advice that may not directly apply to their ministry work. Effectively using AI isn’t as simple as conducting a Google search. It is a new discipline requiring focused learning and practice.

To truly harness the power of AI in a church setting, pastors must seek out training resources tailored explicitly to ministry. Ministry-specific AI training equips pastors to critically assess and select AI tools that enhance the work of sermon preparation, community engagement, administrative efficiency and more. By understanding how to best utilize AI tools that lend themselves to ministry purposes, church leaders can uncover new insights from Scripture, revolutionize their approach to research and sermon preparation, and gain a deeper understanding of their community’s needs.

Investing in ministry-focused AI training prepares pastors to use the technology effectively and enables them to make informed decisions about which tools best suit their ministry’s needs. One of the best ways to get up to speed with AI for churches is to join communities and forums that have peers sharing workflows, examples and encouragement with each other.

3. Setting Vague Goals

Integrating AI into church operations without well-defined objectives can lead to scattered efforts and resources. To maximize the benefits of AI, pastors must engage in strategic planning, identify specific ministry areas where AI can be most beneficial, and set measurable goals to guide its implementation.

These goals might include improving the efficiency of administrative tasks, personalizing pastoral care, increasing engagement through social media, or providing more accessible and engaging learning tools for youth ministry. By establishing these objectives and communicating them clearly to your staff and teams, you can ensure that AI serves the staff’s activities for the broader mission, enhancing rather than distracting from their core purposes.

Pastors should also consider the sustainability of AI initiatives, including investments in AI apps and software, training and ongoing maintenance. A regular review and assessment of the church’s AI policy can help maintain alignment with the church’s values and mission, maximizing benefits while minimizing potential drawbacks.

4. Using AI Too Much for Sermon Prep

AI offers pastors a wealth of references, resources and insights for sermon preparation. However, AI-generated sermons can fail to resonate with the congregation on a deeper level. The “magic” of impactful preaching lies in the unique blend of scriptural interpretation, personal experience and spiritual insight. You want AI to enhance this mix, not derail it.

While AI can assist in identifying themes, analyzing texts and suggesting illustrative materials, it cannot replicate the pastor’s personal journey, spiritual convictions or understanding of the dynamic needs of their congregation. AI cannot pray for you! Pastors should experiment with using AI for initial research or insights while dedicating significant time to prayer, reflection and personal study to develop the core message. And at the same time, be intentional about incorporating stories and examples from within the community.

AI’s use for creating the sermon manuscript can be controversial. Yet, one significant application of generative AI tools is to think of them as your over-the-shoulder editor—only after you have done your writing. You can ask the AI to help clean up spelling, grammar, sequences of arguments, and other editorial tasks. Another excellent use case is to feed it completed manuscripts and ask it for helpful feedback, such as: What were the main takeaways? What questions would a skeptic of Jesus be left asking based on this sermon? What portions of the message were redundant, confusing or distracting from the central thesis?

5. Underestimating Ethical Implications

Privacy, data security and algorithmic bias are not just technical issues but ethical dilemmas that demand attention. The ease of gaining insights and productivity gains by using AI can easily allow users to overlook the responsibilities regarding personal data that is being analyzed or manipulated. Because of the need for ethical clarity, churches need formal AI policies to help staff and teams understand best practices and requirements for handling data when using AI.

Attention to data privacy and security requires a high standard of ethical responsibility because of the personal and private nature of the information. Pastors must scrutinize the data inputted that informs the AI systems, which could ultimately be accessed by the AI platforms for their own use, public disclosure and future publication beyond the immediate AI interactive session.

The ethical deployment of AI in ministry involves selecting and using tools that serve the church’s mission without compromising ethical standards or the congregation’s trust. Navigating these boundaries requires ongoing education, open dialogue within the faith community, and a commitment to aligning technology use with the church’s values.

While AI outputs can reflect biases present in training data, a significant source of problematic AI behavior stems from poorly designed prompts by users. Careful and responsible prompting is essential to mitigate the risk of AI systems making unfair or discriminatory judgments. By providing clear, ethical instructions and context to the AI, users play a crucial role in ensuring these powerful technologies are applied equitably in an unbiased manner.

6. Neglecting a Personal Touch

AI tools can enhance the efficiency and relevance of pastoral care by providing suggestions for empathetic and compassionate correspondence, primers and education on sensitive topics, and support for a wide array of issues that pastors encounter. However, relying too heavily on AI can lead to an impersonal and unhelpful ministry, undermining the trust and intimacy that form the foundation of pastoral relationships.

The personal touch in pastoral care involves being present in moments of need, offering a listening ear, and providing counsel that reflects a deep understanding of the individual’s circumstances and spiritual journey. While AI can assist in identifying needs or trends within the congregation, it is the pastor’s role to interpret these insights and respond with personalized care and guidance.

Because of the speed of AI outputs on any subject under the sun, it’s tempting to lean heavily on AI to create materials, correspondence and even automation of responses to congregation members’ interactions. There’s a tension between the ease of scaling ministry coverage with AI and the deeply personal level of engagement that takes time and individual effort. Prioritizing direct, personal interactions demonstrates to the church member that they are known and loved. This might mean limiting AI use to scheduling appointments or sending reminders for follow-up, thereby freeing up more time for face-to-face or personalized communication.

7. Dismissing AI in Youth and Kids Ministry

AI can be used to create interactive and engaging learning experiences that resonate with the technological fluency of younger audiences. AI-driven apps and games that teach biblical stories and principles can offer a fun and immersive learning environment. Other scenarios include using AI chatbots to provide tailored, personalized content in real time that addresses their specific spiritual questions.

To leverage AI effectively in youth and children’s ministry, pastors must consider collaboration with educators and technologists to develop age-appropriate discipleship content. Additionally, fostering an environment that encourages digital literacy among both children and their parents can enhance engagement and facilitate meaningful conversations about faith in the digital age.

One of the most impactful ways a church can harness AI is to repurpose existing sermons, discipleship content and other resources to speak to youth and kids based on their age, reading level and point of view. So much investment is put into resources and materials for adults. Now, all of that can be easily reframed and reproduced in ways that will resonate with a different age segment.

8. Omitting a Feedback Loop

The introduction of AI into church operations is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Each congregation has unique needs, values and concerns. A common oversight is failing to establish a mechanism for feedback on AI integration, which is essential for gauging its effectiveness and ethical impact.

Because we are so early on the innovation front, there is no one way that is the tried-and-true way to apply and integrate AI tools into ministry workflows. In addition, each staff member is at a different place on the digital and AI literacy spectrum. It is too easy to assume common knowledge (and language) when using AI tools today. It is critical to have consistent check-ins, training, workshops and open discussions with staff members so that everyone can share and learn from each other.

Creating a feedback loop involves regular surveys, focus groups and open forums that invite congregational input on AI tools and their application within the church. This feedback should be actively sought, valued and used to inform adjustments and improvements. By engaging the congregation in this way, pastors can ensure that the use of AI aligns with the church’s mission and the spiritual well-being of its members.

9. Underutilizing AI for Outreach

The potential of AI to extend the church’s reach and connect with individuals beyond traditional boundaries is vast yet not really explored. Community outreach, especially in a digital age, can take advantage of tech-driven approaches to meet people where they are—online.

AI can significantly enhance a church’s outreach efforts through targeted social media campaigns, personalized email communication, and virtual events that draw in and engage broader audiences. AI algorithms can analyze social media engagement to identify topics of interest or concern within the community.

Using AI to translate messages, podcasts and resources into other languages is an excellent idea if your church wants to reach more people in the community.

10. Overlooking Developments

The landscape of AI technology continues to evolve rapidly, with new tools, applications and ethical considerations emerging regularly. Not staying abreast of these developments can disadvantage pastors and their ministries, making them miss out or not recognize new opportunities or ethical dilemmas.

Staying informed requires a commitment to continuous learning and exploration. Pastors can join peer communities, attend workshops or subscribe to training platforms specific to churches. Building relationships with tech-savvy congregation members or partnering with local universities or tech companies can also provide valuable insights and resources.

Every pastor should host discussions with their teams on AI with respect to theology, practical use cases, specific tools and workflows, and other topics that will undoubtedly come up organically once you start. Because the secular marketplace is embracing AI fully, and the applicability of AI tools is so broad, every community has members already using AI to degrees that will surprise others. All you have to do is start facilitating discussions to discover who can contribute to your own learning.

11. Skipping the Congregation

Involving the congregation in decisions related to AI implementation is crucial to foster a sense of ownership and alignment with the church’s vision. Failure to do so can lead to resistance and misunderstandings.

Engaging the congregation requires transparent communication about potential benefits and challenges of AI. This collaborative approach can help identify concerns early on, tailor education initiatives to better equip the congregation’s needs, and leverage the church community’s diverse skills and experiences.

Congregational involvement might reveal a need for AI literacy workshops to ensure everyone can benefit from new technologies or highlight opportunities to use AI in supporting mission work or other worthy initiatives. By actively involving the congregation in AI awareness and education activities, pastors can ensure that technological advancements strengthen the church community rather than creating division or unease driven by fear.

Future-Forward Pastors

Ultimately, AI can be a valuable tool in the church’s mission. Still, you must first decide if you will steward it or dismiss it, along with any unintended consequences. While it can feel overwhelming, pastors who become intentional in this area can navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by AI with wisdom, discernment and agility. By avoiding common mistakes, you can enhance your ministry, increase congregational engagement and extend your reach into the community.