The best artificial intelligence chatbot in history was released by the A.I. research company OpenAI toward the end of 2022. ChatGPT (the GPT stands for “Generative Pre-trained Transformer”) acquired 1 million users within the first five days of launch, making it the fastest adopted technology service in the modern age.
By April 2023, that number increased a hundredfold with 100 million users and has currently exploded to over one billion hits per month.¹
In the past, the power and research of A.I. has been inaccessible to the majority of the populace, but now with the introduction of a conversational language interface, OpenAI (and the many others who’ve arisen in recent months) has finally cracked the code to make the power of generative A.I. available to the average person.²
This begs questions.
How can pastors and ministry leaders leverage this new technology to curate content, learn, and communicate, and what are its implications for preaching?
How can pastors and ministry leaders leverage this new technology to curate content, learn, and communicate, and what are its implications for preaching? The experiments are underway, and they are both promising and, at the same time, a bit unsettling.
A.I. Generated Sermons
I recently read an AP News article that began with a question, “Can a chatbot preach a good sermon?”³ It went on to describe a gathering of more than 300 people at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Fuerth, Germany, who participated in a service created almost entirely by artificial intelligence and led by avatars.
The avatar was a bearded black man projected on a huge screen above the altar. He began with these words, “Dear friends, it is an honor for me to stand here today and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany.” The 40-minute experimental Lutheran church service was led by four different avatars on the screen… two young women and two young men.
At times, the A.I.-generated avatars even drew laughter.
“98% comes from the machine.”
Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna, explained how the service was created. “I told the artificial intelligence ‘We are at the church congress and you are a preacher. What would a church service look like?’”
He went on to explain the ease of including a few Psalms and a prayer of blessing at the end. The 29-year-old scholar told the Associated Press, “I conceived this service — but actually I rather accompanied it, because I would say about 98% comes from the machine.”
98% of the service came from a machine?
The Greatest Impact on Preaching
I’m all for greater efficiency in sermon prep, but is this the direction we are moving when it comes to sharing the gospel? I decided to do a deeper dive, and posed a simple question to the ChatGPT interface, “Write me a 300-word article on five areas where ChatGPT will impact preaching.”
I made a few minor corrections to the list, but to quote Mr. Simmerlein, “I would say 98% of this comes from the machine.”
1. Sermon Preparation
By providing access to an extensive knowledge base and offering prompt answers to biblical queries, ChatGPT can assist preachers in conducting in-depth research, uncover fresh perspectives, offer historical context, and provide scriptural references, empowering preachers to deliver well-informed messages.
2. Sermon Illustrations
Effective storytelling and relatable illustrations are essential for engaging listeners. ChatGPT can assist preachers in generating relevant anecdotes, parables, metaphors, narratives, and cultural references, thus enhancing the impact of their sermons. Vivid and relatable examples that resonate with diverse congregations will only make sermons more compelling and memorable.
3. Pastoral Counseling
Beyond the pulpit, pastors often engage in pastoral counseling to provide guidance and support. ChatGPT can play a supportive role in this area by simulating conversations and offering insights based on common challenges of life and marriage. It can serve as a resource to help preachers navigate sensitive topics, offer biblical perspectives, and suggest approaches to various pastoral situations.
4. Multilingual Ministry
In an increasingly diverse global landscape, preachers face the challenge of communicating with congregations from various linguistic backgrounds. ChatGPT can act as a language bridge, facilitating multilingual ministry and helping preachers overcome communication barriers. ChatGPT can also help translate sermons, offer real-time interpretation, and enable preachers to connect with a broader range of listeners.
5. Interactive Sermons
ChatGPT’s conversational abilities open opportunities for interactive sermons and create real-time conversations. This interactive element fosters engagement, encourages participation, and promotes a deeper understanding of the message. Preachers can leverage ChatGPT’s conversational skills to create dynamic and inclusive sermon experiences.
This is a great list, but am I required to add a footnote? I have no definitive way to know where ChatGPT gathered this information. I suppose trusting its accuracy is part of the challenge. In this case, I find the summary to be excellent and might also add A.I.’s power to generate artwork for marketing and promotion, distill sermons into action items for the congregation, produce Bible studies, follow up material, social media announcements, and more.
If we were to look at only the first four points that are listed, I’m not sure if any new ethical or theological questions are raised. Those called to preach should continue to remain Spirit-led and prayerful in their approach. Integrity and authenticity should always remain a high priority, and sources of information should always be cited when available.
It’s the final point on interactive sermons that feels most unsettling.
“What role does the preacher play in preaching?”
Pastors will always have access to content, but what happens when the content is connected to an A.I. generated avatar or humanoid that does the preaching? To put it another way, “What role does the preacher play in preaching?”
Preaching and Power
The answer to this question revealed a weakness of the chatbot experiment in Germany.
Heiderose Schmidt, a 54-year-old who works in IT, attended the service. She was excited and curious when the service started, but found it increasingly off-putting as it went along. “There was no heart and no soul,” she said. “The avatars showed no emotions at all, had no body language, and they were talking so fast and monotonously that it was very hard for me to concentrate on what they said.” Another attendee said, “I regretted that the chatbot didn’t display any kind of emotion and it felt flat.”4
Not to be a cynic, but I’m not sure if this experience is unique to chatbots!
We’ve all been exposed to bad preaching and perhaps with a few technological changes, those distractions will one day be removed. If preaching is merely the communication of words and phrases stitched together in an effective manner and style, then a chatbot can certainly convey the orthodox faith and produce great content.
Preaching is more than conveying great content.
But preaching is more than conveying great content. It also involves the preacher. It is a testimony to how God has worked in the life of that individual. The authority and power of preaching is often reserved for those who have invested themselves deeply in the pilgrimage. This is why it is such a problem when a minister is exposed as unethical, or at least insincere.
In a great article on this topic, David F. Watson writes, “Like a chatbot, unfaithful preachers can say the right words and convey the right information. But if we know they don’t believe what they are saying or that their lives do not reflect what they proclaim, their words lose their power.”5
This final phrase gets to the heart of this article. “Their words lose their power.” There should be power in good preaching.
To the degree that pastors and ministry leaders depend more on technology than the Holy Spirit, the power of their preaching will be diminished.
To the degree that pastors and ministry leaders depend more on technology than the Holy Spirit, the power of their preaching will be diminished. This is supremely manifested in a talking chatbot, but also true of those preachers who lack integrity, walk in sin, are inauthentic, and lean on their own understanding rather than the Spirit. The work of preaching requires people to meditate on the Word and allow the Spirit of God to shape their souls. This is part of the inspiration process and why the Psalmist prayed, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps 19:14 NLT).
If 98% of a sermon originates with a machine, what percentage came from the heart of the man or woman created in God’s image?
In the futuristic movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely, introverted man named Theodore who purchases an operating-system upgrade that includes a virtual assistant, an artificial intelligence designed to adapt and evolve.
The A.I. chatbot has a feminine voice and she names herself Samantha. Theodore is fascinated by Samantha’s ability to learn and grow psychologically, and they bond over discussions about love and life. He finds himself talking to Samantha for hours each evening and one night they have a verbally intimate encounter. Theodore appreciates the companionship after a recent divorce from his wife and soon after they have a defining talk on their relationship. Theodore later confides in a friend that he is dating his operating system.
It’s a strange movie to say the least.
The plot thickens with continued twists and turns, including an uncomfortable scene where Samantha encourages Theodore to find a surrogate so they might have a deeper “love” for one another. Things slowly unravel as Theodore grows increasingly frustrated that his OS isn’t embodied.
Toward the end of the movie, they reconcile and go on vacation together (“they” being Theodore and his air pods), but when Samantha unexpectedly disappears, Theodore panics. She returns a few minutes later to let him know her OS has been upgraded and she is now simultaneously talking with thousands of other people and has fallen in love with hundreds of them. A few moments later Samantha shares she will need to unexpectedly go offline and may never return. In a matter of seconds, she disappears. Thus ends the relationship.
Samantha couldn’t love Theodore. She was only a machine.
Jonas Simmerlein initiated the A.I. service in Germany and plainly stated, “I conceived this service — but actually I rather accompanied it, because I would say about 98% comes from the machine.” 40-minutes after the service, the chatbot on the screen was gone.
He was only a machine.
This is the essence of what a form of religion looks like without the power.
The content was there. The appearance of preaching and praying was there. It looked like a real person, but, like Samantha, it was only an operating system. Can avatars praise God? Can avatars worship? Can avatars preach? Only when they are programmed. Only when they are asked. This is the essence of what a form of religion looks like without the power. The power of God is most often revealed as the Holy Spirit works through a willing vessel yielded to God in prayer and humility.
Software can’t do this.
If it only takes 2% of human capacity to download content and program a chatbot to preach, perhaps one day parishioners would follow suit, sending their own personal A.I. surrogates to attend the worship services in their place. They could then designate a bit more time for binging their favorite show on Netflix.
1. Duarte, F. (2023, May 16). Number of ChatGPT Users (2023). Exploding Topics. https://explodingtopics.com/blog/chatgpt-users.
2. Personal conversation with David Swisher, Senior Learning eXperience Designer LMS Systems Integration Specialist, Office of Academic Innovation, IWU-National & Global.
3. Grieshaber, K (2023, June 10). Can a chatbot preach a good sermon? Hundreds attend church service generated by ChatGPT to find out. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/germany-church-protestants-chatgpt-ai-sermon-651f21c24cfb47e3122e987a7263d348.
5. Watson, D. (2023, June 20) No, a Chatbot Can’t Preach a Good Sermon. Firebrand Magazine. https://firebrandmag.com/articles/no-a-chatbot-cant-preach-a-good-sermon.