Artificial Intelligence and Pastoral Ministry

artificial intelligence

AI generated content is becoming more common.

This technology is in its infancy, but is growing quickly. The algorithms that create this content are becoming more advanced. In a recent article from The Atlantic, Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply states, “The basic notion of AI is that human intelligence should be utilized for the really hard jobs and the simple jobs should be turned over to machines.”

AI is still a long way from maturity, but it’s already being used to write blogs and even books. Full disclosure: I used an AI program to write the introduction to this blog post. Not a word of the first two paragraphs is mine.

We should, I think, be concerned.

The Ubiquity of AI

Artificial Intelligence is all around us. Seth Godin writes, “You will not be surprised by artificial intelligence. That’s because it’s incremental. Every time a computer takes over a job we never imagined a computer can do, it happens so gradually that by the time it’s complete, we’re not the slightest bit amazed.”

I’ll use AI a few times today: to unlock my phone with FaceID, cool my house with a thermostat, resize an image using Pixelmator Pro, and to create a voice transcript of this post. My MacBook Pro uses machine learning, something I don’t understand, but that’s a form of artificial intelligence.

The question isn’t whether we should use AI in ministry. Most of us probably already do. The challenge is to set appropriate limits on its use.

I own, but do not use, a software program that is designed to help preachers build sermons. It automatically imports Scripture into the manuscript, and transforms a manuscript into slides. The technology already exists to suggest introductions to the sermon, add illustrations to key points, reword and simplify commentaries, and more. It’s not hard to imagine an AI-powered sermon writing tool that promises to save a lot of the preacher’s time and prepare better messages.

Once a sermon is preached, AI can help in presenting the message online. It’s possible to upload a sermon, ask AI to transcribe it and remove the filler words, choose the highlights of the sermon, and then output a video summary of the sermon in just a few minutes.

Whether we like it or not, AI is already here as a ministry tool. The question is what to think about it.

Three Proposals

I want to suggest three proposals.

First: we need thinkers who will start to process the ethical issues around the use of AI in Christian ministry. I’m not aware of anyone doing this so far. Can a pastor legitimately use AI to write a sermon? My instinctive answer is no, but what about using AI to find a suitable illustration? What boundaries should we put in place? We need to start thinking about this before the first preacher gets caught in an AI-related preaching scandal.

Second: set boundaries around the use of AI. Provisionally, I’d suggest the following: never use AI to generate the meat of the sermon. Haddon Robinson writes, “The truth must be applied to the personality and experience of the preacher. This places God’s dealing with the preacher at the center of the process. As much as we might wish it otherwise, we cannot be separated from the message.” Use AI to help you find a good hook to start the sermon or to find a good illustration if you must, but you must wrestle with the text and craft the sermon yourself.

Finally, lean into what only Spirit-empowered people can do. In 1989, I worked as a student pastor at a church in Toronto in the age of the cassette tape answering machine and dot matrix printer. Even then, the pastor at that church taught me about the inverse relationship between technology and human connection. The more advanced our technology becomes, the more we need what only in-person relationships can offer.

Computers can do a lot, but they can never do what a Spirit-empowered person can do with love in Jesus’ name.

We probably won’t notice the creep of AI into Christian ministry, but it’s time to think of some of the implications before the creep has happened.

Artificial Intelligence and Pastoral Ministry
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada