Artificial Intelligence is advancing faster than most of us expected, and the question quickly becomes, “What are the implications (and ethics) for preachers?”
Is AI a threat?
A soul-less temptation that will keep you from doing the real work of coming before God?
AI-empowered writing and research tools like ChatGPT, Jasper, and GoogleCloud AI abound. And they’re only going to become better, more ubiquitous, and less expensive every year.
Artificial intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Take driving cards today, for example. Even mid-trim levels now have autonomous vehicle features like self-parking, speech recognition, and adaptive cruise control that was unthinkable a decade ago.
Suddenly, it’s not just the computer science grads who have to wrestle with the issues of AI development and ethics.
While it’s impossible to unpack all the ethics of AI in a blog post, most church leaders haven’t even thought of the implications in any detail. And knee-jerk reactions, which too often characterize Christian thought these days, won’t help anyone.
But can you use AI to help you improve the craft of Biblical preaching?
Let’s look at five cons related to AI first, and then we’ll consider five pros. The cement isn’t anywhere close to dry on AI, but these are some initial thoughts.While it's impossible to unpack all the ethics of AI in a blog post, most church leaders haven't even thought of the implications in any detail. And knee-jerk reactions, which too often characterize Christian thought these days, won't… Click To Tweet
The cons of AI are not that dissimilar from the cons of plagiarism or over-borrowing ideas from other preachers and sources.
Here are four potential challenges and threats AI poses to preachers…
1. It Will Stop Preachers From Doing the Hard Work
Let’s be honest, preaching is hard work. And in many ways, that’s the point.
Going to the text week after week and coming up with a powerful word that’s relevant to your congregation is what makes pastoring so unique and valuable.
There are very few other vocations that ask leaders to do this. You can be the CEO of a publicly traded company whose valuation is in the billions and rarely be called on to speak publicly. Politicians speak in soundbites.
But preachers? They’re up week in and week out.
But as anyone who’s preached more than a few messages knows, the hard work is part of journey. It grows you as a follower of Jesus. It makes you wrestle on behalf of your congregation. Done right, preaching also grows your prayer life and dependence on God.
Letting AI write your sermon (which it can do in minutes) may make your life easier, but once the wrestling with God stops, so does your growth. And when your growth stops as a pastor, so, over time, does the growth of the people you serve.
I outline other reasons I’m not a fan of stealing other people’s sermons in this post.Let's be honest, preaching is hard work. And in many ways, that's the point. Going to the text week after week and coming up with a powerful word that's relevant to your congregation is what makes pastoring so unique and valuable. Click To Tweet
2. It Can Be Intellectually Dishonest
AI-empowered sermon writing is just the latest round in a scourge that’s been around forever—plagiarism.
Scot McKnight has written a helpful article outlining the ethical issues that get triggered when you steal other people’s sermons, ideas, and messages.
Passing off other people’s insights—or AI-generated insights—as your own is a form of theft.
This, of course, is nothing new. As long as the internet has been around, preachers have been downloading sermons for free and passing them off as their own.
That’s wrong for so many reasons (I outline five here).
If you’re going to use AI to write any part of your finished message, you should disclose it. But as you can see from the next two points, the issues with passing off someone or something else’s work as your own go even deeper than that.Passing off other people's insights—or AI-generated insights—as your own is a form of theft. Click To Tweet
3. Your Ideas May Not Resonate Very Deeply
The more personal your ideas are, and the more they live inside you before you let them out, the more likely they are to resonate with your audience.
As someone who has preached for over three decades, written a few books, spoken to leaders around the world, and written (way too many) blog posts, I can point to distinct times when ideas were formed inside me that have helped—and now live inside—other people.
That’s the unique power of resonance, which is the rare and powerful combination of you wrestling with an idea, finding a clear and memorable way to express it, and having that ring deeply true with your audience.
One of the reasons ideas resonate with an audience is not because they were perfectly stated but because they came from deep within you. And, of course, when an idea or subject comes from deep within you, not only do you not forget it, you master it.
Preachers, it’s a completely different thing to speak from a subject you’ve spent a long time working on than a script you didn’t write that you read for the first time the night before.
The audience knows the difference.Preachers, it's a completely different thing to speak from a subject you've spent a long time working on than a script you didn't write that you read for the first time the night before. Click To Tweet
4. You Will Likely Never Become An Authority
Peddling information and ideas you’ve stolen or borrowed from other people is very different than digesting ideas from other people.
If you’re using AI to generate some or all of your sermon, much like you’d download a sermon online and use it for your message, you’ll never become an authority on an issue.
In addition to being God (understatement), one of the reasons I think Jesus ‘spoke with authority (unlike the religious leaders of his day)’ was that he spent his first three decades immersed God’s Word. So when he taught, his teachings came from a very deep well.
Mastery takes years to develop, and it involves countless hours spent reading about, thinking through, and refining your approach and ideas. When you master an area, your teaching moves to a very different level than when you run from message to message, idea to idea, or topic to topic.When you master an area, your teaching moves to a very different level than when you run from message to message, idea to idea, or topic to topic. Click To Tweet
There are also some potential pros to using AI as well.
In addition to being super-fast and surprisingly helpful (even at this stage), here are five ways AI can actually help, not hurt preachers.
1. AI is a Quick Research Assistant
I don’t imagine a single preacher is reading this who doesn’t use the internet to research a message.
In addition, every preacher I know pulls from commentaries and other scholarly works to prep messages. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a best practice.
Like most preachers, I’ve always done research for my messages, and if this helps with problem-solving as you research your message, I’m not sure how that’s a bad thing.
AI can actually make that process faster. And while you still have to check accuracy, having a quick assistant at hand can make a big difference. AI will also only get smarter as time goes on.
2. Prompts Are Wonderful
The first time I was exposed to writing with AI, I was suspicious. I thought it would be unnecessarily constricting, but just the opposite happened.
AI-generated ideas (I’ve started using SemRush for writing and have experimented with ChatGPT) have given me some fresh takes and angles I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Kind of like reading a great book or listening to a podcast.
If you’re still thinking, “I can do this all by myself with no help,” I have a question for you: Whose preaching would you rather follow?
- A pastor who follows his or her own ‘original’ interpretation of Scripture, and rarely or never reads widely or consults commentaries or reads church history?
- Or a pastor who is widely read and deeply discerns how to interpret life today in light of historic, orthodox Christianity?
For me, the choice is clear. I don’t trust people who think they don’t need help from other sources. You shouldn’t either.
If one of the ultimate benefits of AI is that it makes your research faster, broader, and even more comprehensive and nuanced, what’s the downside?
Similarly, I’ve run ChatGPT through several text exercises, and it’s remarkably perceptive. If that provides a first draft, or ideas for you (the way a good team member or colleague might), is it a problem to use those ideas?
While it’s wise to see how AI evolves (it’s changing quickly), to dismiss it out of hand as a cheat might be unwise. In the same way reading commentaries and books isn’t a cheat—using AI to collate and generate ideas and insights could make you a far better preacher.For me, the choice is clear. I don't trust people who think they don't need help from other sources. You shouldn't either. Click To Tweet
3. AI Might Be More Emotionally Intelligent than You Are
I ran ChatGPT through a few experiments and was surprised by how emotionally intelligent the response was.
Check out the task below, in which I asked the AI to write a memo to a youth pastor who’s struggling to get traction in his ministry. Clearly, this would be a face-to-face conversation (not a memo—who sends memos anymore?), but it produced a ‘script’ you could theoretically use as a basis for a conversation.
Here’s what ChatGPT came up with.
It’s actually a decent start, and while you would improve on it, I have seen real humans do far worse in coaching and counseling a team member.
To be honest, I haven’t always done as well as the AI did.
Using AI to suggest how to make an emotionally healthy response to a tense situation could make many leaders and organizations healthier.Using AI to suggest how to make an emotionally healthy response to a tense situation could make many leaders and organizations healthier. Click To Tweet
4. Without It, You’ll Lack a Competitive Edge
If other people are ‘reading’ each other and the world better through AI, does it leave you at a competitive disadvantage if you opt-out?
As the world gets both smarter and dumber at the same time (funny world we live in), to opt-out of AI may create a gap between how you think and process information and how the rest of the world does.
If the people you’re trying to reach and the people in your church are used to an AI-infused world, levels of conversation, and levels of debate, ignoring what AI can give you might make you less and less understandable or relatable.
It’s hard to grow a church or be a compelling preacher if people no longer take you seriously because you no longer understand the world they live in.It's hard to grow a church or be a compelling preacher if people no longer take you seriously because you no longer understand the world they live in. Click To Tweet
5. It will make your digital presence more discoverable
Almost every growing church moving forward will be a hybrid church—with leaders committed to a strong in-person and digital presence.
Until now, for most churches, navigating their online presence has been a little like shooting in the dark. Most churches can’t afford dedicated staff whose job is to navigate constantly changing algorithms and platforms (yet).
AI can help a lot with that, particularly since all the algorithms you’re up against are AI algorithms.
For example, I used AI to come up with the title for this blog post. I had other angles in mind, but when SEMRush suggested this one, I loved it (it was better than the ones I thought of).
Further, because I inputted some keywords I wanted this post to rank for, the AI told me that the title would help readers find the post. I didn’t have to take a shot in the dark at what I thought might connect.
As AI expands and grows, your ability to get your messages out to the people you hope to reach increases significantly.As AI expands and grows, your ability to get your messages out to the people you hope to reach increases significantly. Click To Tweet
And Now…Artificial Intelligence Weighs in on AI
Because this is a post on AI, I asked ChatGPT to write part of this post on the potential upside and downsides of using AI in preaching.
Here’s what ChatGPT came up with.
It is difficult to predict how a specific congregation would respond to a preacher using AI to prepare a sermon. Some members of the congregation may find it interesting and innovative, while others may view it as a lack of authenticity or personal touch.
Ultimately, it would likely depend on the quality of the sermon and the way it is presented by the preacher.
If the AI-generated sermon is well-written and thoughtfully delivered, it is possible that the congregation may be receptive to it and find it to be a valuable addition to the preaching. On the other hand, if the sermon is poorly written or delivered in a robotic or impersonal manner, it is likely that the congregation would be less receptive to it.
In either case, it would be important for the preacher to be transparent with the congregation about the use of AI in preparing the sermon, and to carefully explain the reasons for doing so.
This could help to address any concerns that members of the congregation may have, and enable them to understand the potential benefits of using AI in this way.
One potential benefit of using AI in preaching is the ability to generate personalized sermons based on individual church members’ needs and interests. For example, an AI system could analyze church members’ demographics, attendance records, and other data to create tailored sermons that address specific challenges or issues relevant to that individual or group.
This could help engage church members and make the sermon more relatable and impactful.
Another potential benefit of using AI in church leadership is the ability to automate certain administrative tasks, such as scheduling events and meetings, managing budgets and finances, and organizing volunteer schedules.
This could free up time for church leaders to focus on more important tasks, such as providing spiritual guidance and support to church members.
However, there are also potential drawbacks and ethical concerns to consider when using AI in preaching and church leadership.
One concern is the potential for AI systems to replace human leaders, leading to a loss of personal connection and spiritual guidance for church members. While AI systems may be able to generate tailored sermons and automate administrative tasks, they cannot provide the same level of empathy and emotional support that human leaders can.
Another ethical concern is the potential for AI systems to discriminate or make biased decisions based on the data they are fed. For example, an AI system that generates personalized sermons may use data from church members’ demographics, attendance records, and other factors to create tailored sermons, but this data may also contain bias or prejudice. This could result in sermons that are discriminatory or exclusionary, which would be counter to the values of most religious organizations.
Well, you can see AI has a ways to go, but again, as a prompt, it has potential. And it will only get smarter as more and more people use it.
The future is getting here faster than you think. The question is, are you ready?