Damian Chambers, MA, is an assistant professor in the School of Religion and Theology, Northern Caribbean University, Mandeville, Jamaica.

ChatGPT—the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that is producing not only humanlike conversations but also humanlike intellectual output—has generated a lot of interest in the topic of AI since it was launched in November 2022. ChatGPT can write sermons—and good ones too. Several pastors have done experiments with their congregations by presenting sermons written by ChatGPT to get their reactions. Very few congregants could tell the difference between a sermon composed by ChatGPT and one written by a human.1

This article seeks to address the implications of the emergence of AI for pastors and how they should relate to it. Are there any new ethical and/or theological issues created by ChatGPT and other such AI tools, and how should clergy respond? What are the ways a pastor can harness the power of AI in his or her work? We will begin our discussion with a brief overview.

What is artificial intelligence?

Since it covers a wide field of technology, any definition of AI depends on who does it. However, at its basic level, AI relates to the idea of getting machines to mimic human intelligence.2 In 1955, American computer scientist John McCarthy3 first coined the term, and then British mathematician and logician Allan Turing (1950s) popularized it.4

Three inventions or concepts contribute to the power that AI possesses today. The first invention is software such as Hadoop that can process big data.5 Second, computers, having greatly improved their processing power, can now handle large quantities of data. And finally, AI now has been designed to “mimic the neural network of human beings, and . . . has the ability to perceive, identify, judge, and predict objects.”6

Therefore, at this stage, rather than merely being limited to what they have been programmed to do, machines can learn and adapt to their environment. Machine learning (ML) is one of six branches of knowledge that serve as the driving force behind AI technology today. ML “is based on the concept that systems/machines can learn from data, recognise patterns, and make decisions with little or no human interference.”7 Another of the six principles of AI is that of natural language processing, which is the ability to interpret data from human speech or language. Natural language processing is the technology, for example, behind ChatGPT, speech-recognition devices, and language translators.

AI tools have become pervasive in society. We use them without even noticing. For example, as I typed this article, Microsoft Word used AI technology to interpret what I typed and suggest grammar and spelling corrections. AI tools implement the predictive texts feature in your email and text messaging on your phone, shopping assistants such as Alexa, voice-to-text conversion software, and language translation software. Self-driving cars and face recognition software involve more complex AI systems. AI affects every industry and has created concerns about the future of some jobs, including that of the clergy.8

AI and the pastor

So, how should pastors relate to AI? I say we should look at it in two ways—theologically and practically. Theologically, pastors should be prepared to answer questions that their members might ask about AI. For example, “Can AI replace humans?” or “What are the ethical concerns that AI raises?” On a practical level, pastors should be looking for ways to use AI in their ministry.

Can AI replace humans? Obviously, AI tools can and will replace some or all aspects of some jobs, but not humans themselves. According to Tinku Thompson, the level of AI technology that could usurp humans would require the ability to be conscious and would fall within the category of super AI. That would be the type that people like “Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking think will lead to the extinction of the human race.”9

As Bible-believing Christians, we know that consciousness is a gift from God (Gen. 2:7). Since humans cannot transfer that gift, super AI will continue to remain only in science fiction and the imagination of its conceptualizers. Consequently, the idea of AI replacing humans is something that, as Christians, we should not be worried about.

Ethical issues raised by AI. While the biblical principles of morality remain the same throughout time, the creation of new tools usually generates new arenas for the application of those concepts. Some of the issues raised by AI tools include data privacy, intellectual property, reliability of data, and bias or discriminatory results.

While data privacy issues have existed since the invention of computers, they have been accentuated with the emergence of the current AI tools. Some specific tools that would generate privacy concerns for a church, for example, include face recognition technology, surveillance cameras, and intrusive marketing tools that study customer behavior. It is important that each church not only study the privacy policies of the tools they use but also create and implement their own privacy policies in connection with any form of data collection that they practice.10

AI tools have also raised concerns about intellectual property rights. For example, if a pastor uses AI to generate a sermon, it is difficult to determine the source of the information and how to credit it. Similar concerns involve photo generation apps. In addition, AI tools raise the issue of the reliability of the data that they generate. Some researchers have demonstrated that AI tools can generate biased results on political and other opinionated matters.11 Therefore, just as you would filter the data that you find on the internet or receive from others, you should do the same for the information AI tools produce. You should never uncritically accept AI-produced content.

The pastor’s use of AI tools

Besides examining the ethical and theological issues relating to AI, pastors should also explore ways of utilizing AI tools in their ministry. Generally, you will not yet find AI tools that are created specifically for the pastor. According to William Young, at present, not many economic incentives yet exist for developing or doing research into advanced AI technology for church.12 However, the church, and by extension, the pastor, can benefit from general tools available to the public, especially in the fields of customer service and education.

The first step toward implementing AI tools in pastoral ministry is to have the right mindset toward them: to see them as just tools, not a replacement for human creativity. No matter how advanced it gets, AI is simply a device to help us in our work.13

Some commentators refer to AI as producing the fourth industrial revolution.14 Each of the previous industrial revolutions provided humanity with tools of greater capacity and power. From the beginning of time, humans have always been creating mechanisms to solve problems through automation and efficiency.15 And that is exactly how the pastor should view AI tools—they exist to make life easier but are not here to replace what only humans can do.

Following are some of the practical ways pastors can integrate the plethora of AI tools into their work:

Research. AI tools can assist the pastor in his or her research for sermon preparation and media content creation. For example, they can determine the most common Bible topic questions people are asking to aid pastors in remaining relevant with their sermons or other activities.

Media ministry. AI tools can assist the pastor with the creation of videos, podcasts, graphics, and other media. For example, voiceover allows you to type your script and let an AI tool do the speaking for a video or podcast. In addition, AI tools can also assist with editing photos and make graphic work easier. You can use AI tools to remove the background from an image. Some apps can generate images based on your instructions, which is a useful way to find appropriate graphics and illustrations for your sermons and presentation slides. For a more extensive list of helpful AI tools, see the Practical Pointers on page 30.

Pastoral care. Using AI in pastoral care cannot replace the need for the human touch in visiting and caring for members. However, as a type of online ministry, a chatbot can be set up to respond to general queries and concerns about the Bible and other matters when personal interaction is not always possible. An article on the Adventist News Network website reported that several Adventist churches in South America are using chatbots to help provide automated responses to Bible questions and conduct hundreds of Bible studies daily.16

Takeaway

In this article, we have defined AI, explained how it relates to pastoral ministry, and shown how the pastor can use it in pastoral work. The most important takeaway should be that we view AI as an advanced tool that we can use to enhance the work of mission rather than as a replacement for human creativity.

  1. Sabrina Ortiz, “What Is ChatGPT and Why Does It Matter? Here’s What You Need to Know,” ZDNET, April 7, 2023, https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-chatgpt-and-why-does-it-matter-heres-everything-you-need-to-know/.
  2. Rancho Labs, “6 Major Sub-Fields of Artificial Intelligence,” Medium, July 14, 2021, https://rancholabs.medium.com/6-major-sub-fields-of-artificial-intelligence-77f6a5b28109.
  3. Tinku Thompson, “Creator God, Humans, and Artificial Intelligence: Framework to Address Theological and Relational Issues” (DMin thesis, Bethel University, 2020), 58, https://spark.bethel.edu/etd/625.
  4. Jun-Sub Im and Young Ju Ham, “A Study on Theological Students’ Perception of Artificial Intelligence and the Christian Educational Implications,” Journal of Christian Education in Korea null, no. 61 (March 2020): 233–262, https:/doi.org/10.17968/JCEK.2020..61.008, 239.
  5. Big data refers to data sets that are beyond the capacity of traditional database software.
  6. Im and Ham, “Theological Students’ Perception,” 239.
  7. Rancho Labs, “6 Major Sub-Fields.”
  8. William Young, “Reverend Robot: Automation and Clergy,” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 54, no. 2 (June 2019): 480, https://doi.org/10.1111/zygo.12515.
  9. Thompson, “Creator God,” 58.
  10. Damian Chambers, The Online Bible Instructor: A Guide to Personal Evangelism in the Digital Age (Mandeville, Jamaica: NCU Press, 2022).
  11. David Rozado, “The Political Biases of ChatGPT,” Social Sciences 12, no. 3 (March 2023): 148, https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030148.
  12. Young, “Reverend Robot,” 481.
  13. See also A. Trevor Sutton, “Pastors: Lead not your church into fear of AI.” Christianity Today, June 8, 20023 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/june-web-only/ai-artificial-intelligence-risk-threat-warn-church-pastor.html
  14. Im and Ham, “Theological Students’ Perception,” 239.
  15. John Dyer, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Digital Editions, 2011), 33, Kindle.
  16. Nicole Dominguz, “Using AI and Innovative Technology in the Adventist Church,” Adventist News Network, October 5, 2021.

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Damian Chambers, MA, is an assistant professor in the School of Religion and Theology, Northern Caribbean University, Mandeville, Jamaica.

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