As is wont to happen with technology, it develops exponentially and at an accelerating rate. Thanks a lot, Moore’s Law! Hence, “all of a sudden” and “out of the blue” come advancements that have been in the works for years. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is obviously making spectacular gains and invading everyday spaces. Everything from chatbots to drones equipped with facial recognition technology is employing AI and unless we live on a farm off the grid, we won't be escaping it.
The ubiquity of AI will no doubt accelerate our lives as we are encouraged to move more into digital “spaces” and out of real spaces. And because the Christian church is nothing if not an in-person community, there can be no question that AI will challenge the Church on many fronts. On what fronts, in particular?
The Rise of Preachbots?
Perhaps the silliest example, but one I just cannot brush off, is the real possibility that sermons will be written by ChatGPT or a similar program. Why not? Think of all the time that will save! In truth, sermons are already being ghost-written and plagiarized, as no less than a past leader of the Southern Baptist Convention was caught giving sermons that included anecdotes that could not have come from his own life. What was discovered was basically the existence of a sermon-sharing service, presumably at least written by human beings. Now however, pastors can save the subscription fee and have ChatGPT produce an equally mediocre product.
In case you are wondering, this would be a betrayal of the vocation of pastor. Pastors are to engage with the biblical text and place it in the immediate context of the people listening, which means including things such as the month, the city, the culture milieu, etc. Even if ChatGPT can produce better derivative content than a human pastor who is only an average thinker and writer, part of being a pastor is loving people enough to strive to bring God’s Word to their flock. If he can’t be bothered to do that, and such a habit was ever discovered, it would be a morale killer for the already burdened people of God.
I hope this is a laugh-off suggestion. But I have a feeling that Large Language Model (LLM) AI will be producing a lot of Christian content in the years to come. Can the Spirit of God use it? Will He? I’m extremely doubtful.
Facts Over Knowledge and the Death of Expertise
A major motivation for attending church is to learn. Indeed, adult classes and sermons often convey interesting and important information, presumably by an expert in his/her field who has studied the scriptures or history of languages for many years. While Google can point to web pages that may or may not answer a question we have about faith, what if a LLM chatbot can produce an adequate answer on the spot? Expertise, and the sacrifices made to achieve it, will practically vanish in the world of AI.
At most, a spiritual leader will still be able to offer value judgements and non-derivative points-of-view that will bless a Christian community. They can provide pastoral care and preside at services. They will likely disagree with content generated by a godless AI. And they can provide leadership in an era of soft or hard persecution. But for those who only view the Church as a transactional community where information is received, an AI god will suffice.
From AI to “AC”- Artificial Congregation
As chatbots become more lifelike, might they replace real community altogether? No doubt. Consider these suicidal men whose romantic chatbot stopped sexting with them all of a sudden! Rather than hearing the challenging word about your shortcomings before a holy God, a chatbot can and will cater to your every narcissistic need. As the wave of affirmation and love - albeit only from a lifelike robot - washes over an entire generation, will a substantial number have the force of will to get out of bed in the morning and support a local congregation? The question answers itself.
Then there is the curious reality of certain chatbots that offer you a supernatural experiences as well, by allowing you to keep in touch with your dead loved ones by cobbling together all their online presence (posts, photos, and videos) into a responsive entity. Of course, by borrowing from past experiences, all of this AI will be derivative and I suspect that, in time, will make them feel fake and unsatisfying more quickly than their developers anticipate. But will this mean our standards will simply lower to what is good enough? Will we just eat the thin AI gruel force fed to us and choose that artificial world, derivative quality and all? I suspect many of us will, which will accelerate the decline of the visible church.
What Denomination is Your Bot?
The even bigger picture is how these AIs or chatbots possess a worldview that will in turn shape the worldview of its users. As we hear more about AI being regulated by beliefs about “fairness” or any value for that matter, it is critical to ask, “by what standard?” “Whose values?” I mean, when it creates a laudatory essay about a global warming proponent but refuses to create a laudatory essay about fossil fuels, it is obvious there is a particular worldview behind these bots. Of course there is! Because AI is derivative of its programming, their worldview is impossible to hide.
Holding Fast to the Faith over Coding
So in sum, I would say that AI will 1) create bland and derivative Christian content; 2) become more of a personal companion, which cuts to the heart of church community; 3) will become a source of unlimited information which makes information centers like churches less valuable; and 4) will promote a godless worldview in the way it provides information and therefore lead to more godlessness.
For Christians them the solution to all of that is to be aware of this and remove themselves from AI’s influence and warn others about it. If the only thing churches continue to talk about is how to “have your best life now,” they will have no defense against an AI that promises to help you get there even faster. This is something the Church must address in the same way it addresses other false promises and worldviews. The sooner, the better.
And there is good news! Those who resist AI will, in the end, be far better off. For AI may be able to steal our imaginative work and create incredible art, music or even films, but it is ultimately derivative and an escape from reality. In the end, it will leave the user frustrated, lonely, angry, or as we are already seeing, suicidal. It will be one of many “I told you so” moments for the Church at large but that is a hallow victory. My hope, at least, is that we resist the AI invasion in the first place.
Photo Credit- helloguice. ai