By Jared Bridges/The Washington StandSeptember 15, 2023
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Preaching may not be the oldest profession, but it's an occupation that's been around since the days of Noah. And as long as there have been preachers, there have been sermons. And as long as there have been sermons, there have been long sermons. And with all sermons whether long or short, preachers must spend time in preparation. Studying for sermons is hard work and help for the pastor is usually welcome.
Enter the emerging field of artificial intelligence (AI) sermon aids. With drive-thru attendants already being replaced, it was only a matter of time before AI came for your pastor. Well, maybe not your entire pastor just yet, but his sermon is certainly in jeopardy.
An AI Pastoral Field Test
Christianity Today recently highlighted this trend with an article entitled, "I Used ChatGPT for Six Months to Help My Pastoral Ministry. Here's What Worked." The writer is Yi-Li Lin -- a young pastor in Taiwan -- who says he believes "... AI offers ways for pastors to more efficiently work and balance their many responsibilities."
Serving on the pastoral team of my own church, I'm aware that it's a near certainty that pastors will use AI in some capacity. Using technology in sermon preparation is nothing new for pastors. From the book, to the laptop, to the microphone, to sophisticated Bible research software, tools have been available as long as preaching have been preaching. After all, even Paul instructed Timothy to bring his books and parchments. No argument at all against using technology as a tool.
The tension comes when technology doesn't merely allow the pastor to do his thing, but instead does the pastor's thing for him. Yi-Li Lin argues that AI can save pastors time in sermon preparation that can be rerouted to other ministry goals. But he quickly gets into areas that go far beyond organizing his own thoughts:
"When I need examples or applications for a sermon, I go to ChatGPT for ideas. For example, I can ask ChatGPT to write a story of Jesus riding a motorcycle into town based on Scripture and then can add more context and continue to adjust the plot to make my point."
Setting aside the appropriateness of having Jesus ride a motorcycle, the fact that a pastor would have a generative AI make application for a sermon is disconcerting. The AI is making decisions from its codebase and algorithm to supposedly illustrate the meaning of a biblical text. One could only hope that ChatGPT would suggest that he focus less on Jesus's motorcycle and more on the biblical author's intent, but I digress.
If a preacher were to use such methods in sermon prep, not only are they avoiding hard work that can be more fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation -- they're trusting a soulless AI with known biases to interpret the meaning of the word of God.
Tools for Every Need
There's an explosion of AI tools available for pastors. The CT article references OpenBible.info's AI Sermon Outline Generator. This website does just that -- by sending prompts crafted at the website to ChatGPT, it generates rudimentary sermon outlines and thesis statements based upon the Scripture references input by the user. Trying it out on a passage I recently preached (Titus 3:1-8), I'd say the results were in the category of "meh."
The tool's unnamed creator even admits that it's not that great: "The outlines themselves are ... OK. I'd say they're around the 50th percentile of the approximately 2,000 sermons I've heard in my life. They mostly stick to the obvious points in the text, but that's no different from many pastors' sermons." The site's apt disclaimer tells it all: "Since an AI generates these thesis statements and outlines, please use them with caution. Notably, AIs like to make things up, so I wouldn't trust anything it says at face value."
More concerning are apps like SermonAI, a tool that claims to help pastors "unleash the power of AI in sermon research, writing, and delivery." In the company's 15-minute demonstration video, the narrator assures viewers that, "The goal of SermonAI is not to have a computer write sermons for you, the goal is to be your assistant in researching and writing the best sermons you've ever written." He then proceeds to show you in great detail how the AI can write sermons for you.
The tool, he says, can become "... your personal editor. And now it's going to begin to edit your text for you. So your sermon sounds better because this can write at a Ph.D. level."
And if Ph.D. level is too esoteric for your taste, do not fear. SermonAI can take things down a notch to the level of honorary doctorate. The narrator goes on, "I could also say write it again in the voice of Billy Graham because the database basically has everything that's been published up to the year 2021. It knows everything Billy Graham said that was published and understands how he speaks. And so now we could write it again in the voice of Billy Graham."
Thank you very much, but I think I'll stick to preparing sermons "just as I am."
When the Copy Machine Is Simply Copying the Machine
Pastor David Schrock, with whom I serve on a pastoral team, wrote a book on plagiarism in the pulpit called "Brothers, We Are Not Plagiarists: A Pastoral Plea to Forsake the Peddling of God's Word." I asked him about the relationship between AI sermon prep and outright plagiarism.
"Such a feature tempts the pastor to let the machine do the work," warns Schrock. "This is a practice that robs the pastor of the joy of studying God's word, even as it limits his ability to improve as a student of the word. Even worse, however, is the fact that a congregation can now be given a sermon that was prepared as much by machine as the man empowered by the Spirit."
And that's the real loss if AI is abused in this way. The preacher, by taking the shortcut and allowing AI to do the hard, soul-transforming work that should be sermon preparation, shortcuts his own spiritual development.
A Better Way
I asked Google's Bard AI if there were really any shortcuts to anything in life. The oracle answered, "Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to take a shortcut is up to you. There is no right or wrong answer, and the best approach will vary depending on the situation." Hmm, no thanks. I can get that kind of run-of-mill moralizing from watching any after-school special or an interview with a politician. When I need the truth of God's word, I need to hear good news preached from the mouth of a person who has experienced it, and has been sent:
"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" (Romans 10:14-15 ESV)."
At this point in our tech-infused world, AI doesn't have feet. I'm pretty sure of that. We Christians must hold our preachers to a higher standard. A standard where our yes is yes, and generated by a heart changed by grace, not generated by a prompt. David Schrock tells me, "If AI becomes the standard, it moves the church one step closer to having automated pastors preaching approved messages, instead of men weak in the flesh, but mighty in the Scriptures." Amen.