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Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

I thought I would write about artificial intelligence and digital ministry, until I realized that ChatGPT could write on my behalf:


Since March 2020, most Christian communities have tested new models of digital and hybrid ministry. We sought to bring the church online because we saw the web as a place where faith could be nourished through content and conversation. We imagined that Christian community could flourish in digital spaces where real people were increasingly focusing their time and attention.

The goal of these models was not to replace in-person forms of church but to convene and revitalize new expressions of community. During the pandemic, the goal was simply to create some semblance of church community for a time of distress and distancing. More recently, the goal has shifted towards inclusive outreach, with digital seen as an accessible entryway into the life of the church.

Yet underlying this experiment in digital ministry was a core assumption: that the conversations we had, that the stories we encountered, would reflect the real, lived experiences of other human beings striving to express the inexpressible.

We inhabit a world where the concept of authority is murky and misunderstood. Still, we know that digital content and conversation from our church is authentic and trustworthy because it emerges through real relationship.

The online prayers and perspectives, the digital stories and the sermons, they work to edify communities because they come from people who we know and trust.

This, incidentally, is the reason why we watch online worship with low quality production value, or why we'll listen to a podcast episode with scratchy audio. Because the content originates from a familiar source, we understand it to be authentic and trustworthy.

For all of the patchy audio and shaky camera feeds, digital ministry carried the church through a pandemic because it brought together real people to express and respond to concrete encounters with a living God.

But what happens when a chatbot can write a sermon as effectively as compelling as the most gifted preacher, in a fraction of the time? What happens when AI-generated words can masquerade as someone's actual creative work?


Chat GPT should not push us away from ministry in digital spaces. But this technological upheaval should force a reckoning with the purpose, or the ends, of digital ministry.

In an AI-infused world, content creation and consumption cannot be goals, or the ends, of digital ministry. As AI comes to create better content than we can, such an approach will create a vicious cycle: more and more high quality content leads to more individual content consumption, which drives us away from lived encounter with the neighbor. The view, the like, and the retweet can no longer be key performance indicators to the digital minister.

The world is about to be bombarded with technological changes we still cannot understand. All we know for certain is that this new technology will be captivating, addicting, even all-encompassing. In such an environment, digital-only forms of church community will only turn us further inward. Moving forward, the goal of our digital ministry must be to nudge an outward turn from a self-absorbed world.

In this model, digital ministry will offer an inclusive word that pulls us back to human relationship. When done well, digital ministry will become a lifeline that pulls us back to the face-to-face and the analog. In that sense, we have reached the end of digital ministry as a separate alternative to analog, offline church.

As I write this blog post, I am looking ahead to Sunday, May 21st, 2023, when I will preach a sermon on the 17th chapter of John at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Madison. Given how busy I've been lately, maybe it's best that I outsource the creative process.

Or maybe, I'll crack the spine of my Lutheran Study Bible and try to understand what all of John's talk of spiritual unity means for today's church.

Maybe I'll try to find relevant stories from the congregation, or anecdotes of my own experience. I'll likely turn to my usual preaching resources - podcasts from Luther Seminary's WorkingPreacher, and aging Bible commentaries my grandfather left me.

Perhaps I'll even include a joke about Lutherans and coffee. It might take more time. It might not be as clear or succinct as what AI could generate. But it'll be authentic.

Whether watched in-person or on the church's YouTube feed, my prayer is that the sermon may lead to real conversations with actual people. Whether viewed on Facebook or recapped in our email newsletter, my hope is that will tell a specific story of what God is up to in our world. And in the post-pandemic, post-AI church, that must be our purpose.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes" and "The Holy and the Hybrid." Neither were written by a chatbot.


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Death Cab for Cutie is unlikely to headline a Christian rock festival this summer.

With hits like "I Will Follow You into the Dark" and "Soul Meets Body," the band is far more agnostic than religious, more existential than spiritual. In a 2011 interview with Relevant Magazine, band member Ben Gibbard described himself as a lapsed Catholic with intentions to rid himself of the "emotional shackles" of his religious upbringing.

And yet when I find myself listening to their latest hit, "Here to Forever," I can't help but thinking that this is a song that could just as easily air on mainstream radio as it could at an Ash Wednesday service.

The lyrics begins with a meditation on black and white movies from the 1950s:

In every movie I watch from the '50s There's only one thought that swirls Around my head now And that's that everyone there on the screen Yeah, everyone there on the screen Well, they're all dead now They're all dead now

And it ain't easy living above And I can't help but keep falling in love With bones and ashes With bones and ashes And when the color is too bold and bright I'm daydreaming in black and white Until it passes Until it passes

Bones and ashes are perhaps the central metaphors on Ash Wednesday. As we receive the imposition of ashes, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We begin our Lenten journey with this practice not to be depressing or existentialist, but to recall the fundamental fact of our existence: that we are mortal.

As I listen to this song, I'm drawn not just to the reminder that we are bones and ashes, but to the singer's description of falling in love with bones and ashes - because therein lies the hope of Ash Wednesday.

Not that we will die, but that we are beloved by God throughout it all. We are bones and ashes, but our bones and ashes are the creation of an eternal God. We are bones and ashes, temporary bodies made by an infinite creator whose work breaks into our lives in spite of our limitations.

It is only through awareness of our mortality that we can faithfully and sincerely return to the Lord - which is why we begin Lent with ashes. For why would one seek to shed the false self if the false self were eternal? Why would one seek to rediscover one's true identity as a beloved child of God if the identities assigned by our world were permanent and immutable?

While a student at UW-Madison, I had the great privilege of being mentored by Pastor Brent Christianson of the Lutheran Campus Center. Each year, Pastor Brent would recite this poem as his Ash Wednesday sermon. Pastor Brent passed away in 2020, but the impact he made on countless students remains. I doubt he ever listened to Death Cab for Cutie. But I'm sure he would have found companionship with the band if he ever had the opportunity to meet for scotch ales at Dotty Dumpling's. I've included an excerpt here from Pastor Brent's sermon, also available on YouTUbe for those who would rather listen.

Remember that you are dust. To dust you shall return. And as dust, you are beloved.

Stardust and Ashes

by Rev. Brent Christianson

We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. Our lives orbit and move, flow and fall, settle and send the life and the lives that we have and share and lose and choose or have chosen for us in the presence of particles small as non-being and large as the cosmos a cosmos for creatures of stardust and ashes.

We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. We are creatures whose lives flow from God’s hidden mind and the dust of the earth. We are creatures whose futures will be in God’s heart and the soil of the ground. We are creatures whose mouths sigh in ecstasy, cry in pain, whose minds create beauty and weapons, whose hearts beat in hatred and love whose lives move in awe and in boredom whose loves flow like water and lava whose work can bring wholeness and sin whose hopes can be noble and petty whose scope can be worldwide and bound to go no farther outward than the skin we inhabit. Creatures of Stardust and Ashes.

We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. And on some of our foreheads a mark that may be one or the other, or might just as likely be both. Our hearts are not home ‘till they find home in God and the stardust will shine like the sun. Our lives are not lives except they are lived on this earth where ashes and memories, dirt, dust and mud cake us or take us to where we must know that we have a home here – here as well – on this planet of ashes and stardust. Spinning through space in its own grace and grandeur, the earth touches stardust and ashes. Move a hair’s breadth away (as the universe measures itself), and this grand earth itself shrinks and hides in the cosmos of stardust and ashes. Ashes and stardust.

The sun itself, burning a bit cold in winter will heat up the dust of our sometimes brisk bodies and warm us, come spring. But it also will turn, burn to ashes ... and stardust for nothing but God is eternal.

We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. They cannot be separate, cannot be taken apart or away for they make us today and tomorrow and all yesterday’s who we were are and will be. The smudge on our foreheads is death- toll and promise. It tells us of all of the ashes in our lives, the times gone, the loves done the friends passed, the ancestors sleeping in dust. But the marks that we bear, bear a promise.

The promise is stardust that flows from the garden of God to be gathered at last and before then to be holy ground where the One who sees each one in secret, rewards – not from merit or pity or labor done well, but from that one’s deepest secreted heart. For the God whom we worship is stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. God is in every stardust and ash. God is around every stardust and ash. God is between every stardust and ash. God is found now – found now, in with and under the bread and the wine, the friend and the foe, the lover and enemy, water and word, in the one standing next to you; the one sitting, who is you and the God who is stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust has held you from long before you were conceived and will hold you again and forever a step past your own grave. God is here now – in God’s stardust and ashes. God is here now, in your stardust and ashes. God is our God and God chooses to be in the hidden place of our own secret ashes. God is our God and God chooses to be in our own secret place of our unnoticed, unseen unsuspected and hidden own stardust.

We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. God is a God of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. The wind of the spirit stirs stardust and ashes and mixes them up and breathes life into dry lungs and sets us all here and gives us each other and bread, wine and water and makes of our stardust a bright shining sun; and makes of our ashes a rich, fruitful garden, and makes of our present, the dwelling of God, and makes of our futures, the place where God dwells.


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Digital content is becoming more important to hybrid ministry, especially with waning attendance and participation in livestream worship and events. As the world continues to emerge from the pandemic, digital ministry will become increasingly asynchronous, where digital content anchors conversations and communities. We will see fewer attending events, and more reading stories, watching videos, and discussing ideas.

As we observe this shift, the content we share becomes a new form of Christian witness for a digital age, a way to engage and welcome the neighbor.

At first glance, the demands of digital content may seem to be too much for church leaders already struggling to keep up with worship services, staff meetings, council meetings, weddings, funerals, and youth groups. It is certainly true that church leaders do not have time to create enough content to do digital ministry well. There simply aren't enough hours in the week.

So today's church leader must figure out how to balance content creation with curation, or the act of re-packaging and re-distributing content.

We take up the work of curation not just because it saves us time, but because the church already builds considerable original content each week: sermons, children's messages, prayers, bulletins, announcements, and more. Plus, the broader web is filled with thoughtful (and sometimes not-so-thoughtful) faith-based content. The task of the digital minister in 2023 and beyond will be that of a theologically-trained librarian, selecting and surfacing resources for discussion in their community.

An example of email curation from Faith Lead: Book descriptions and reviews

Step one: Create or curate?

High-quality curation begins with the decision that it's more useful to repackage something existing than to create something anew.

Generally, creating new content is more useful in unique circumstances, or when you're seeking to circulate novel perspectives from within the ministry. In most other circumstances, curation will be just as impactful.

You should create new content when:

You should curate existing content when:

You want to lift up the stories and perspectives in your own community

You want to share expert perspectives from highly-regarded thinkers

Your community is facing a unique challenge or opportunity (ie, a special event, or a transition in staff leadership)

Community is facing a challenge or opportunity shared by many others (ie, a global pandemic)

You want to broadly share an idea that is original or brand new to your community (ie, a work of art or a new piece of music written by a parishioner)

You want to broadly share an idea already circulating within your community: from a sermon, from a discussion group, etc.

Applying this logic, curation ought to be more common than creation in most Christian communities.

Churches tend to use similar source material (doctrines and scripture). Most churches face similar challenges (such as pandemics and declining attendance). And all churches have ideas that are shared via preaching and formation.

Once you have decided to curate an idea, the next step is to determine whether to curate internally or externally.

An example of curation on Facebook, sharing a post from the denomination

Step two: Internal vs external curation

To curate something internally is to repackage what your community has already created, reigniting its usefulness by posting to social media, including in a newsletter, or publishing in a blog or podcast.

Internal curation sources

Curation example

Sermon audio

Publish in a podcast feed

Confirmation lesson

Instagram Reel video

Prayers of the people

Social media post

To curate external content is to share a resource created outside of your community. External curation is the act of embedding quality resources within your ministry's digital platforms, like a newsletter or blog.

​External curation sources

Curation example

Short video (ie, from The Bible Project) explaining context behind weekly scripture passage

Embed the video in weekly newsletter

Podcast episode exploring a question of what it means to be the life of faith (ie, an episode of Another Name for Everything with Richard Rohr)

Post to social media channels and encourage comments on a discussion question

Idea shared via Tweet or other social post

Re-tweet or re-post, with a 1-2 sentence description of how it applies (or doesn't apply) in your community

External curation requires some filtering on the part of the digital minister. Before re-sharing an external idea, think about the author's original objective. Was it to inspire a conversation? Attract eyeballs to their profile? Boost attendance for their worship services? You'll also want to make sure that the author is a real (and reputable) thinker. Relevant Magazine made headlines in 2021 when they reported that four out of the five most shared Christian Facebook pages were run not by ministers but by foreign troll farms. As librarians evaluate the reliability, validity, and accuracy of a resource, the digital minister evaluates its integrity.

Then, consider the author's theological commitments, both those that are explicit in the content and those that are implied from the author's institutional affiliation. The thoughtful curator sources information from a broad spectrum of denominational commitments, but is able to filter, contextualize, and editorialize to align with the needs of a specific ministry context.

Step three: Crowdsourcing as curation

Finally, we lose something if the process of creating and curating content becomes a staff or pastor-driven task. Digital content curators should act as crowd-sourcers, collecting stories and soundbites to share across the community. Digital ministry can only be the work of the people if we draw in more perspectives than rostered leaders, paid staff, and professional Christian content creators.

This is why blogs and podcasts are so important to digital ministry.

Curation in a video: Rev. Jim Keat (@ideasdonedaily) demonstrating how to embed Tweets in a YouTube message

These digital sources are perfect for adding written or recorded reflections from parishioners and community members alike. Whether in response to a specific discussion question, or as a reflection to a text or liturgical season, crowdsourced soundbites give your parishioners a voice.

More importantly, they provide the means with which to articulate God's action in their lived experiences. Digital ministry is at its apex not when it leads to content consumption, but co-creation. We do digital ministry effectively not when we invite someone to watch something, but when the content we create together helps someone to reflect at how God is at work in their world.

Content curation resources:


Ryan Panzer is the author of "The Holy and the Hybrid: Navigating the Church's Digital Reformation," now available wherever books are sold.


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