ChatGPT and the End of Digital Ministry
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.