By Terry Brisbane and Rusty Rueff, Crosswalk.com
The recent release of ChatGPT-4 has created a great deal of talk about artificial intelligence (AI), large language models (LLMs), and what they will do to the future of content. As a pastor and a tech exec who just completed writing a book together about the intersection of our faith and the changing world around us, a wild question occurred to us: What would happen if pastors began prompting ChatGPT-4 to create sermons?
The Potential of AI Sermons
Would AI sermons—based solely on the text of the Bible—be better because they were not created by fallible human beings? Would the words produced be closer to the original words of Jesus than any person could ever create, since AI would also be “without bias”?
Sure, this question may be a little premature, as most people look at the writing produced by AI so far—and though it’s surprisingly good given the circumstances—they seem to agree that it’s “not quite there yet” to replace human writers, except in the most generic of senses. At the same time, it’s not hard to see that someday soon it might just be “as good” as most human writers, and better than much of what is already on the internet. If so, could a congregation confidently turn their Sunday and Wednesday night preaching over to an AI pastor? And if they did, eliminating the filter of human frailty, would they be better for it?
The Moral and Functional Implications
It might seem like a silly question on the surface, but if you really consider it, the likelihood of someone trying this method can’t be that far away. We wouldn’t be surprised if some pastors are already utilizing ChatGPT for some portion of the notes they speak from every Sunday. After all, we already have services producing ready-made curriculum for Sunday Schools and youth groups—maybe even sermons (though we haven’t seen any yet, it certainly doesn’t seem farfetched). How soon will it be before we start turning the creation of such materials fully over to AI?
The Essence of Jesus's Words
Jesus himself said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63 ESV). If the spirit and life are in the words themselves that Jesus spoke, does it matter how they are produced? Does it matter who pieces them together into an inspirational work? Does it matter if it’s a human being or a machine? Might it even be better if it is done without human prejudices—done completely based on the words of Jesus as a “source code” for living? Might that not allow us to save on needing to pay for a ministry staff and do something better with that money, like feeding the hungry or building hospitals in places there aren’t any doctors? Might it not lead to more direct ways of establishing the kingdom of God?
The Nature of Being a Follower of Jesus
Different congregations will likely have different answers to this, but there are, perhaps, questions tangential to these that will give us better answers. The issue is perhaps less functional than ontological. After all, what is the nature of being a follower of Jesus? Is it mostly about saying and believing the right things, or is it something deeper and more essential to the nature of being human? While the words of Jesus themselves are “spirit and life,” it seems crucial that the release of that spirit and life finds its transformational power only when interacting with a human soul. Sin is a very human experience, after all, as is receiving—and extending—forgiveness and grace. As we’ve all probably experienced to some degree or another, it’s quite possible to “weaponize” scripture to some desired end if it’s not interpreted through the filter of the love on which, Jesus said, “depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40 ESV).
Preaching with Imperfection and Potential
Scripture must be taken as a whole, which an LLM might do better than a human being, but it must also be preached with an understanding of human imperfection and potential. Hebrews 4:15 ESV tells us, Jesus, our High Priest, is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” It might just be, in guiding the lives of others towards more fruitful living, an understanding of human shortcomings might just be a necessary ingredient for empathy and counsel—that having received grace is an essential aspect of knowing how to extend it. In a parable about a house built on a rock and a house built on the sand, the difference between the two houses is not that one interacts with the words of Jesus and the other does not, but that one does the words of Jesus and the other does not.
While we’re not at the point where having AI pastors is possible, it’s not implausible that someday in the not-too-distant future, some congregation somewhere will try it. But maybe we shouldn’t wait until that time before we start debating whether it’s better to have ministers who have souls or not, whether it’s really necessary to understand temptation and the human condition (as Jesus came to the earth to demonstrate) to counsel others on avoiding them, and even whether all the other attributes that we aspire to as human are, in fact, more important than leveraging technology to maximize profit, no matter what it cost our humanity. Maybe we shouldn’t wait to ask a more important question, either: if we still hope to care about such things then, what should we be doing not to lose grasp of them now? What should we be doing with the words of Jesus we already have? Because it’s not the more eloquent expression of them that will usher in the kingdom of God, but the everyday doing of them—the everyday loving of our neighbor as ourselves.
Photo Credit: ©Glenn Carstens Peters/Unsplash
Terry Brisbane and Rusty Rueff (in collaboration with Rick Killian) are the coauthors of The Faith Code: A Future-Proof Framework for a Life of Meaning and Impact, which was released on September 12, 2023. The two have met together for coffee with a friend regularly for the last decade—other commitments, travel, and COVID-19 notwithstanding—to talk about their lives, their ambitions, and their missions, and then pray together over whatever was on their hearts. Dedication to these meetings has resulted in friendship between three very different people on various ends of politics and culture, though not faith. They live and work in the Bay Area, constantly questioning and experimenting with what it means to be salt and light in the 21st century.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
We would do well to consider how biblical patterns might inform our contemporary actions. Read James Spencer's full article here.
Sound and Photo Credit:©/iStock/Getty Images Plus/skynesher