This past June, an artificial intelligence chatbot led a worship service complete with a sermon, prayers and songs. Though it has been around for decades, artificial intelligence (AI) has recently generated all kinds of new advancements and applications, controversies and concerns.
This boom in machine learning is generating a lot of anxiety and uncertainty among us humans.
As I discuss in my book “Redeeming Technology,” AI can be defined as the ability of machines to perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence. This broad and rapidly changing field deserves the attention of ministry leaders, congregations and seminaries. Wise ministry leaders will endeavor to understand the impacts of AI, foster communal conversation about this technology and proactively develop policies for its ethical use in ministry.
AI will have massive effects on the future of ministry, some of which will be negative. Pastors and ministry leaders may be called upon to counsel families navigating uncharted ethical questions as medicine relies on AI to treat patients. Ministries may need to care for workers — computer programmers, journalists, financial advisers, graphic designers and law clerks — displaced by AI. And congregations and denominations may need to address what it means to be human in a world of ever more competent computers.
However, AI will also affect the future of ministry in some positive ways. Generative AI — a form of AI that can create original content based on detailed prompts — will provide ministry leaders with a host of new tools for proclaiming the gospel and serving the church.
For example, a ministry leader can use an AI image creation application (also known as text-to-image AI) to make a customized graphic for a sermon series. Using an application such as Dall-E, a ministry leader might provide text prompts such as “cross,” “church,” “heart,” “abstract,” “minimalist” or “modern” so that the program can generate original graphics. After adjusting the text prompts and making other necessary edits, the ministry leader can then use the finalized graphic to promote a new sermon series or Bible study.
Video creation is another possible ministry application for generative AI. A platform such as Synthesia enables ministry leaders to produce low-cost and customized videos for small group Bible studies or training purposes.
For example, a ministry leader can easily create a teaching video by uploading text into the application, which will then generate realistic AI voice-over of the text. What once required very expensive audio and video equipment can now be done with a computer and access to a generative AI application. With this technology, even ministries with small staffs can create high-quality and customized video content for teaching.
Other ministry applications for generative AI include translating content into other languages, speech-to-text voice dictation, and generating staff position descriptions based on specific prompts and key words. Generative AI will provide ministry leaders with an incredible suite of new tools and possibilities.
Yet this is where wise ministry leaders will avoid embracing or eschewing AI thoughtlessly. While some may be prone to reject AI outright out of fear or uncertainty, others may run to adopt it too hastily. Either of these extremes can create problems for ministry leaders. Instead, ministry leaders ought to be proactive in developing best practices and policies for an ethical use of AI in ministry.
A key insight about AI for ministry leaders is to recognize that it does not mean removing people altogether from the content creation process. While generative AI relies on computers, it also relies on human users entering the prompts, making the edits and finalizing the finished product.
For example, if a congregation uses a generative AI tool to create a position description, people will provide the text prompts and then make necessary edits before posting it. Just because the position description was made with generative AI, that does not mean that real people were not part of the process through and through. Similar to how word processing software replaced typewriters, generative AI tools may replace many office tools that ministry leaders regularly use. Yet people will be the ones using the tools to create the content.
Further, wise ministry leaders will be proactive in discerning acceptable uses of AI within their own ministry contexts. For example, rather than using a tool like ChatGPT to help compose a sermon and then finding out that the congregation dislikes the practice, a wise leader will explore hypothetical examples of what are and are not acceptable ways to use generative AI.
A council or governing board could discuss concrete scenarios in which the ministry may choose to use AI tools. Would it be permissible to use AI to create a position description or translate a document into a new language? What about using ChatGPT to compose a sermon illustration but not the whole sermon? Discerning the ethical lines before stepping on them is important.
Finally, ministry leaders should work to develop concrete policies and procedures that address AI tools. The emergence of new AI tools is raising legal questions around copyright matters, plagiarism and content creation. Having a policy or procedures setting out how a ministry staff will use generative AI can help avoid inadvertent legal disputes.
A ministry-specific AI policy would address the ways in which the ministry will and will not use AI. For example, a policy might limit AI usage to specific applications such as image creation, voice-to-text or language translation. A policy might also choose to rule out certain things such as uploading copyrighted content into generative AI programs.
Ministry will be changed by AI; there’s little doubt about that. However, wise ministry leaders will seek to guide this change in a positive way by fostering proactive conversation about the technology and collaborating with others to discern how AI can help — and not hurt — ministry.