Updated: Aug 29
This post is the second in a series on the intersection of Christianity and artificial intelligence. The first post in the series, which explores how AI may challenge what it means to be church online, is available here.
Creatio ex nihilo.
Latin for "Creation out of nothing."
This phrase is foundational to the Christian doctrine of God, which posits that God is the one who creates matter where previously there was none.
When ChatGPT was released last November, it seemed like a digital tool that could also create something out of nothing, producing everything from children's stories to song lyrics with minimal prompting. In fact, ChatGPT does not create from nothing. ChatGPT's creations are the product of a highly sophisticated model that ingests the contents of the internet and produces coherent answers through a process of prediction.
Of course, these answers aren't always accurate, nor are they always coherent. And there are many ways that these tools could be used for malevolent purposes. Indeed there has been a loud and clear outcry about the potential harms from systems like ChatGPT. Still, these tools also have the potential to make our lives easier. They can help us to generate and organize our ideas. They can provide structure to our communications. They can give us templates to kickstart the creative process. So while there are real risks of artificial intelligence, ranging from job displacement to violence on a global scale, there is also the hope that these systems can make us more effective, as individuals and organizations, leading to greater human flourishing.
Churches have a real opportunity to utilize AI systems to enhance our ministries. If we learn to use tools like ChatGPT, we can create practices that enhance, rather than replace, our ministries. As church resources from budgets to staffing continue to decline, these AI tools can help us to create digital content. They can help us to communicate more effectively. They can even help us to be better teachers of the Gospel.
Using ChatGPT to curate and create church digital content
33% of mainline Protestant adults attend church weekly. 25% of mainline Protestants never attend church. Just over 40% attend church sporadically. ChatGPT can help congregations reach infrequent church-goers, connecting them to the messages and themes first proclaimed from the altar and the pulpit.
Moreover, AI tools can help frequent church-goers to engage more deeply with what they heard from lessons, prayers, and preaching.
A sermon manuscript is a powerful resource for creating digital content. When a preacher writes 1,500 or more words for a sermon manuscript, he or she creates a resource that can be expanded upon or repackaged, shared with the broader community as it moves from the sanctuary into day to day vocations.
Instruct ChatGPT to create a Tweet or Facebook post based on your most recent sermon manuscript
Paste your sermon into the chat
View your ChatGPT-created social post
Provide feedback to refine the post
Edit and post to social media
Using ChatGPT to organize church communications
I've never been a member of a church that is lauded for its clear and consistent communications. Chances are, no matter how effectively you send newsletters and share announcements, someone is going to feel like you are leaving something out!
While AI cannot solve all of these challenges, ChatGPT can at least provide your communications with a consistent, repeatable framework.
Think of ChatGPT as a dictation assistant. AI can take an unformatted list of what is coming up next in the ministry and provide a template for a newsletter.
Input what's happening this week in your ministry
Instruct ChatGPT to write a newsletter
Include instructions to write a short reflection on a verse from next week's readings
Provide feedback to refine the post, then edit yourself for accuracy, clarity, and consistent tone.
Using ChatGPT to teach the Gospel
ChatGPT has been trained on a library of the world's sacred texts, and ostensibly some of its most influential commentaries.
While AI is by no means an authoritative theological research, it knows enough about the basic structure and narrative arcs of scripture to at least provide a teachable outline. These outlines can be adapted to the needs of specific audiences: age, school year, even familiarity with the subject matter. And while you'll need to scrutinize the theological outputs of any chatbot, AI tools can provide you with a well-organized lesson outline that has a coherent flow and sequence.
ChatGPT can be an especially useful assistant anytime a substitute teacher is needed, or when you aren't sure where to start. In the following examples, ChatGPT creates a 20 minute lesson plan for a group of Confirmation students in the Lutheran church.
While the hands-on learning activity (a "freedom collage") may not be particularly effective, the outline is a highly useful tool for organizing your lesson.
To create your own lesson plan:
Provide background on your learners and their familiarity with the subject matter.
Mention any time constraints.
Include the context of the ministry, such as the denomination or any core theological convictions.
Instruct ChatGPT to create a lesson plan.
Challenges and issues abound with the use of AI in the church. ChatGPT may not be the best theologian. It's certainly not a great pastor. And it's ability to create personalized, immersive content might turn us away from community, drawing us further inward.
Still, in a time of dwindling budgets and resources, it can provide something invaluable to ministries in a digital age. It can spark the creative process. As we seek to create Christian community, AI may prove to be a practical assistant.
@ryanpanzer is the author of two books on digital ministry. No chatbots were harmed in the making of this blogpost.