The Way We Do Discipleship Matters, Especially with AI

April 1, 2024

“Depend on it. God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.”
– Hudson Tayler, missionary to China and founder of what is now OMF International

The way we do discipleship matters to God. 

As we look into a future where AI tools will provide support to our discipleship efforts, understanding the way of Jesus will help us to implement these new tools that align with God’s ways rather than the ways the world would suggest.

Usually when we hear the quote from Hudson Taylor, our mind goes to financial provision. But the truth behind those words could be applied to any kind of resource. And at the end of the day, AI is a powerful resource at our disposal to be used wisely for Kingdom purposes. 

Just like a financial gift must be stewarded to accomplish God’s work, a tool like AI needs to be stewarded. That means we need to proactively understand its potential, pray over our options, and obediently respond to how God wants us to use this powerful resource. 

For a scriptural model of this, look no further than Daniel chapter 2, where he faces down a powerful king with God’s miraculous power.

What might that look like with AI involved?

Imagine that small group leaders at a local church had an AI assistant to help them plan out and prepare for their regular group time. What would it look like for people in the church to have AI tools to help them design their discipleship journeys and get input on specific issues or questions in real time? These are all very real possible applications of AI as they relate to discipleship.

The question becomes not, “What can we do?”, but “What should we do?” 

This is where the Holy Spirit’s discernment becomes so crucial. Simply because AI can do something doesn’t mean it should be allowed to do it. So what kind of decision process can we use to wrestle through the uses of AI in discipleship? 

I think we can take some lessons from our work in Bible translation and scripture engagement at SIL, a faith-based organization focused on helping people flourish with the languages they value most. Because of our focus on languages and the huge advances in Large Language Models (LLM’s) that are driving much of the advancements in AI, SIL has had a front row seat in exploring this new technology. As we are exploring the role of AI in Bible translation and scripture engagement, we are having to wrestle with some critical questions. 

The most important question is, “How might we be sensitive to the role of the Holy Spirit working in the life of a person as we seek to utilize AI tools?” Our goal is to support our workers with the very best tools so they can do the work God has called them to do. 

In order to do this, we have to regularly ask, “What is most human about this task?” 

It is not easy to think through how God made us in his image and what is the very human part of a given job. But if we will prayerfully do this, God will be faithful to show us what needs to remain in the hands of a person. This line of questioning is pushing us to dig deep and think about how technology can help without taking on tasks that are not appropriate for the tech to handle. 

What do I mean by “What is most human”? Simply put, what is the activity that represents what God made us to participate in as part of our faith journey? 

The reality is that if AI can write that email for you, but God wanted you to write it so that you could wrestle through the content with him, then that is bad stewardship of AI. 

Very tangibly this means that our AI copilots will do some things, but not other things if we are in tune with the Spirit. A great example is in the area of quality control. We now have a whole suite of tools to assess the quality of a Bible translation. These tools, in the hands of a qualified translation consultant, help the work move more quickly and produce a higher quality product. But they don’t take away the critical role of the consultant overall. We recognize that a consultant’s role is vital to a translation, but we also see how they can be supported and helped immeasurably. 

What does a consultant do? They walk alongside the translator to check the process, the thinking, and the final product. 

This requires a lot of cross-cultural, linguistic and Biblical understanding that is communicated through relationships. And those relationships are not simply a feature, they are part of the end result. 

As Bible translators work with consultants, they are being shaped and formed into the experts and leaders who will continue to make a significant contribution to the community they are working with in bringing the Bible to life. To replace the consultant with AI is to rob the translator of encouragement, mentoring, relationship, and guidance.  

Now apply the same lesson to discipleship. 

What are the truly human aspects of the discipleship process? What are the tasks that can easily be automated to give humans more time to do those human things? Once you have that figured out and your team on board, you can begin to build a thoughtful, values-based strategy for incorporating AI into your discipleship approach. 

Will you take the time to ask the hard questions about how God wants to work through the people in your church as they engage in the God-given task of discipleship? 

Jon Hirst

Jon Hirst

Jon Hirst, the Chief Innovation Officer for SIL International, leads SIL's efforts to engage with AI and has a 25+ year background in championing innovation in the nonprofit sector. Jon has a background leading technology, publishing, marketing/communications, and research efforts  for nonprofits. Jon participated in four published works as the author, co-author, or editor: Innovation In Mission, Through the River, Our Anchor in a World Adrift and The Calling of the Knowledge Steward. He lives in southern Wisconsin with his wife, Mindy, and their three children. Jon and Mindy run a consultancy called Generous Mind and Jon also runs www.innovationinmission.com, a community of Kingdom innovators seeking to implement disciplined innovation in their organizations.
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