Using AI to Write Sermons: Is ChatGPT a Solution for Busy Pastors?
Recent headlines about ChatGPT may have you wondering about using artificial intelligence (AI) to write sermons — or at least to conduct sermon research. In fact, some people are promoting AI as a time-saving tool for overworked church leaders.
Most pastors can relate to being short on sermon-prep time, or lacking ideas for yet another inspiring message from the pulpit. But would you be game to try an AI-type resource to boost your Christian preaching? And would your congregants even notice? Beyond the logistics, it’s worth asking if it’s even ethical to use sermons produced by AI. Most importantly, would those messages be spiritually nourishing for worshipers?
Pastors should ponder the brave new world of AI and using it to write sermons — even if you’re sure you’d never try it yourself for actual preaching. What are the advantages, the limitations and even the dangers of using AI to write sermons? How can ministers co-exist with artificial intelligence?
An Overview on Using AI to Write Sermons
In many fields, ChatGPT and other forms of AI are raising alarms about technological overreach. Schools and universities are concerned about cheating and plagiarism. Journalists and other professionals worry that artificial intelligence will make their jobs obsolete. Others fear that AI is the beginning of a robotic takeover of society.
ChatGPT from OpenAI is a “chatbot” program with a language component that generates human-like text. Because this free technology is fairly new, many questions still exist about its uses, limitations and dangers. People have been conducting all types of experiments to discover what ChatGPT spits out.
Faith leaders are jumping on the bandwagon as well. Last December, New Testament scholar Todd Brewer gave ChatGPT requests for a specific type of Christmas sermon. He was impressed with the overall results, saying the artificial intelligence “even seems to understand what makes the birth of Jesus genuinely good news.” But Brewer adds that the sermon was missing “human warmth” because AI religious messages “can’t convincingly sympathize with the human plight.”
When Rachael Keefe, a pastor in Minnesota, tried using ChatGPT to write a pastor’s column, the program managed to get the facts correct but lacked “something deeper.” She tells the Associated Press, “AI cannot understand community and inclusivity and how important these things are in creating church.”
Some critics of AI say it results in a mishmash of unintelligible jargon. Others say it merely creates convincing mimicry — which in some cases might be misleading or even dangerous. “It’s easy to be deceived by” AI, says technology ethicist Anna Puzio.
Proponents, meanwhile, view AI as a handy helper for tasks such as sermon writing, comparing it to tools such as spellcheckers and calculators. What pastor couldn’t occasionally use a virtual research assistant to wade through all the Bible commentaries and resources about God’s Word? Other people who are optimistic about harnessing AI in the church say it opens doors for outreach and evangelism. For example, artificial intelligence could lead to greater availability and inclusion, says Puzio, especially for people who attend religious services online.
Although the jury is still out on using AI to write sermons, a new industry is already thriving. Websites for preachers promise to generate thesis statements, sermon outlines and even entire messages.
Concerns and Limitations of Using AI to Write Sermons
Any kind of sermon writing assistance raises concerns about plagiarism — or at least a lack of originality. Does taking shortcuts with sermon prep lead to uninspired Christian preaching? Would a ChatGPT sermon remove some of the personal connections with God’s Word?
Because ChatGPT is a form of technology, it lacks empathy and emotion. Plus, a language model doesn’t have a storehouse of lived experiences. AI doesn’t know what it’s truly like to be human, spiritual or a Christ-follower.
AI “lacks a soul — I don’t know how else to say it,” pastor and professor Hershael York tells the Associated Press. “Artificial intelligence can imitate [elements of anguish] to some level. But I don’t think it can ever give any kind of a sense of suffering, grief, sorrow, the same way that a human being can.” Emotions that great preachers capture come “from deep within the heart and the soul,” York adds, “and I don’t think you can get that by proxy.”
The presence of preachers among their people adds power and meaning to sermons, others point out. “The pastor is in the congregation, she lives with them, she buries the people, she knows them from the beginning,” says theologian Jonas Simmerlein, who recently used AI to generate an entire worship service. “Artificial intelligence cannot do that. It does not know the congregation.”
Another limitation of using AI for sermon prep and actual preaching is that it lacks specificity. On 1517.com, Professor Ken Sundet Jones writes, “Even if Pastor A.I. ChatGPT were able to move beyond the sermon as a dispensation of information, it would still miss the homiletical boat because it could only operate in the realm of a hypothetical audience. There’s no particularity to what it produces and, thus, no ‘for you’-ness to it.”
To personalize their AI-generated sermons, pastors would have to provide the chatbots with lots of data and details … which could invade people’s privacy. “Imagine ChatGPT having access to every single social media account with your congregation or organization,” writes Andy du Feu. What would happen if a pastor then instructed AI to “write an encouraging message that responds to the current situations of every member” of the church? “Disturbing is an understatement,” says du Feu.
Spiritual Implications of Using AI to Write Sermons
Veteran pastors know that preaching involves much more than preparing and reading a sermon or homily. Preaching is a complex art form, a practiced skill and even a calling. Delivering a sermon involves using the human voice, adjusting inflection and tone, conveying emotions and emphasis, interacting with listeners in real time, and making immediate adjustments based on people’s reactions.
The Rev. Russell Moore, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, writes that AI might be able to teach but never will be able to preach God’s Word. “Preaching needs someone who knows the text and can convey that to the people,” he writes. “But it’s not just about transmitting information. When we listen to the Word preached, we are hearing not just a word about God but a word from God.”
Pastor Stu Strachan agrees. “A sermon is not simply teaching,” he tells CNN. “It sets a precedent for understanding Scripture correctly. And there’s also this moment of exhortation, of asking what it says about our own lives. There’s also more value added to a sermon as culture becomes more secular. If churches want to grow, they have to connect their teachings to modern life and modern problems.”
That leads to another shortcoming of artificial intelligence: It can’t evangelize or follow up with guests. The reason is that AI hasn’t “been with Jesus,” as was evident of Peter and John in Acts 4:13. Mike Glenn, a longtime pastor in Tennessee, points to that Bible passage as proof that “AI will never be able to preach a decent sermon.” He tells Christianity Today: “When listening to a sermon, what a congregation is looking for is evidence that the pastor has been with Jesus. An authentic sermon is filtered through Scripture, good theology, and the pastor’s own testimony.”
By contrast, Glenn says, “AI will always have to — literally — take someone else’s words for it,” so it can’t effectively reach people for Jesus. “The Word must be in the pastor. The Word must be in the sermon. Otherwise, it’s not preaching,” Glenn adds. “And honestly, AI will never be able to do that.”
Yet another obstacle for a ChatGPT sermon is that Christians are a diverse group, with many doctrinal subtleties and a range of beliefs on various topics. “We don’t have only one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI has to present as well,” says ethicist Anna Puzio. “We have to be careful that [artificial intelligence is] not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion.”
How Pastors Can Co-Exist With AI
It’s up to humans to come to terms with all the implications of AI, says Andy du Feu. Like many others, he believes this language model is here to stay, so people (and pastors) should learn how to get along with it.
In an opinion piece at PremierChristianity.com, du Feu offers preachers three tips for dealing with the brave new world of artificial intelligence.
- “First, there is space for ChatGPT in preparing to teach and preach, offering some really useful tools,” he writes — as long as you remember to handle with care.
- Second, du Feu encourages faith leaders to befriend “techies” because they are “the new gatekeepers.”
- Finally, he advises ongoing discussions about AI and its potential and challenges from a faith-based perspective.
Busy, weary preachers might sometimes sound robotic in the pulpit, but they’re still human beings. Pastors have relatable emotions, burdens and needs — one of which might be assistance with sermon prep. Is AI an acceptable way to avoid pastoral burnout, or does it lead down a dangerous path? We’ll have to stay tuned to see how churches and pastors use and adapt artificial intelligence.
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