I’m going to plagiarize a sermon, and you have to guess who wrote it,” Rabbi Joshua Franklin warned those at a synagogue in East Hampton, New York. After the two-minute talk, some guessed his father or a famous rabbi wrote it. When he revealed it was from ChatGPT, some applauded.
“You’re clapping, but I’m terrified,” he replied.
Discussions surrounding the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on society, including ministry, exploded recently with the release of ChatGPT (a chatbot that writes original content) in November. But artificial intelligence has been around for decades.
The first AI programs were written in 1951 to play chess and checkers. Currently, we interact with artificial intelligence on a regular basis, often through our phones. “No matter where you are, you are being shaped by technology. Even if you aren’t aware of it, you are interacting with AI,” says Jason Thacker, author of The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity.
The generative aspect of recent AI advances is what makes it unique. This new function has led pastors to turn to AI for more than research assistance. “ChatGPT can be good as a research aid,” Griffin Gulledge said, “(but) any type of ‘ghostwriting’ would be no more ethical than passing off another person’s sermons or commentary as your own work.”
Using his normal means of research, the pastor of Madison (Ga.) Baptist Church, had trouble narrowing down the ways the twelve apostles died. So he and asked the AI application. “By seeing the ChatGPT answers, I was able to return to my own resources, knowing what to specifically look for to verify its answer.”
Gulledge sees limited value in AI as a tool in sermon preparation, but said he would never use it to write his sermon or assume the generated answers are correct.
Samford University biblical and religious studies professor Tyshawn Gardner would agree. Gardner has been preaching for almost three decades. He has seen technological changes that benefit him in sermon preparation. “Research via technology helps reduce the time it takes me to prepare my sermons and allows me access to a greater number of resources,” he said.
Still, Gardner argues, pastors must guard the sermon prep time. “It is a time that we hear from the Spirit what the Lord wants to say to his church and the world. A message that does not begin with the Holy Presence is not a sermon at all,” he said. “Pastors should be mindful that any curtailing or undermining of the sacred task of preparation is a reproach upon the sacred task of proclamation.”
Thacker worries some pastors may be tempted to overly rely on technology, including generative AI, given the ever-growing demands of ministry. To do so, he said, misunderstands the purpose of a sermon. “This is not about the transfer of information,” Thacker said, “but whole person transformation, which can only come after a preacher has been wrestling with God’s Word and is shaped by it himself.”
The Gre(AI)t Commission
Some may argue Christians should use whatever means possible to fulfill the Great Commission. But “we can’t approach technology, or any issue, from a strictly pragmatic perspective,” he said. “The Great Commission doesn’t say we’re supposed to spread information but to teach people to obey what Jesus has commanded us. Teaching involves human connections.”
Gardner said God does not call us to fulfill his purposes apart from his means. “Even God is bound by parameters he has set by his word and actions with humanity,” Gardner said. “We don’t see God using or commanding us to use anything artificial, especially in proclamation. In his Word, the process of biblical preaching is clearly revealed.”
If lacking development by a human being created in the image of God working in concert with the Spirit of God to communicate the Word of God, the sermon would be little more than an instruction manual. When asked what an AI-generated sermon would be missing, Gardner says succinctly, “God.”
Aaron Earls is senior writer for Lifeway Research.