Will Artificial Intelligence replace church?
There’s actual a whole range of questions here. Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) replace pastors? How about the church institution? How about preaching? How about aspects of church? Hymn and song writing? Theological writing? Evangelism? Worship or parts of worship? Will AI replace the sense of community? How about the sense of the sacred? Will AI be treated as holy or divine? Will it cause disruption and/or problems? Will it make church life easier? Will it make it different?
I don’t know the answer to any of that. And neither does anyone else.
Here’s what I do know – some people ask questions because they want to know the answers. Some people ask questions because those questions lead to more questions. Some people ask questions because the questions need to be raised. Some people ask questions in order to consider new possibilities. I fall somewhere in those last three categories. There are probably other reasons to raise questions like these too.
While so much of the church is slow to deal with change, I’m left wondering, do we really have that kind of luxury any more? I don’t think we do. I’m not saying that the church has to adopt every single new invention that comes along. There’s something to be said for an institution that can offer some continuity in the midst of constant change. And at the same time, resistance to change is not a virtue either. It’s a sign of death or at the very least stubbornness and who wants to be around that?
I heard an interview about what AI means for the future. First let’s clarify a few things. Where are we with AI. We have what is referred to as narrow AI. This means that the computers have access to loads of information and can process that information quickly and and spit out answers within set parameters. That’s my understanding of it anyway. These computers are not thinking in the broad sense of the term. They are doing a calculation based on the input provided.
The other type is more of a broad AI. Within this category there is strong AI and self-aware AI. Strong AI would be computers that would be able to learn and understand as a human can, and self-aware AI would be able to surpass humans. Both of these are beyond our current capabilities.
So for now, we have narrow AI which has the ability to write a sermon, for example, or a hymn, which could be technically correct, and might actually be pretty decent.
There are several questions that the church needs to grapple with this. Questions like – are there any ethical boundaries with using AI? What are they? Are we going to approach AI in an adversarial way or as something that can enhance and be helpful to the church? If so, how and in what way? How will AI redefine certain roles and what those roles do? How will the rest of the church adapt? Will it? Why? Why not?
For example – pastors. How could the role of pastor be affected by AI? Just with the sermon preparation, I can see that for some pastors, AI could assist a pastor in crafting a sermon. The question is in what way? What would be appropriate? What would be inappropriate? Where does the Holy Spirit fit into this? For other pastors, AI would not be a help at all in crafting a sermon. But AI might be of assistance in generating reports, or writing a grant, or creating emails about something. There are possibilities. The question is what are they? If we aren’t considering those possibilities because we have our heads in the sand and we think that it doesn’t affect, then we’re fooling ourselves. It’s already here. It’s already being used.
I’m asking the church to be thoughtful in its approach to AI. Where is God already at work with AI? How is God using AI to advance the mission of the Gospel? What are the boundaries? Beyond that, how can the church help facilitate new possibilities in moral and life giving ways that move us towards justice and right relationship? That’s the real opportunity?
Fear not AI. The Church has a mighty protector of its ways: the synod or general Committee. It’s mission, according to Sir Barnett Cocks, a Victorian member of the House of Lords, is simple: “A committee is a cul-de-sac down whicvh ideas are lured and quietly strangled.”
It explains why the Church is so often the last on board on societal change.