Can AI Increase Church Attendance? It Might. But Not in the Way You Are Thinking.
Updated: Sep 12
This post is the third in a series on the intersection of Christianity and artificial intelligence. The previous post in the series, which explores how AI can help us to communicate and collaborate more effectively, is available here.
The holy sacrament of the altar... also has three parts which it is necessary for us to know. The first is the sacrament, or sign. The second is the significance of the sacrament. The third is the faith required with each of the first two. These three parts must be found in every sacrament. The sacrament must be external and visible, having some material form or appearance. The significance must be internal and spiritual, within the spirit of the person.
-Martin Luther, "The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ," 1519
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I heard Jim Keat say something profound that would come to shape my view of church online: "Virtual is not the opposite of real. Virtual is the opposite of physical. They are both real."
With these words, Rev. Keat provided a handy retort that could be deployed anytime someone questioned the validity of digital or hybrid ministry. For now, I still agree with Jim. Real Christian community is in fact convened and sustained in digital spaces.
Still I wonder how Rev. Keat's ideas might evolve in a post-ChatGPT culture. Artificial intelligence was an afterthought for most of our culture until November 2022. When we thought of digital ministry during the pandemic, we thought of online communities led by people we knew and recognized. Whether listening to a sermon on YouTube or reading a Facebook post devotion, we accessed content that was created by people we trusted.
Our pastors may not have been the best podcasters. Our directors of music may not have been the best video producers. But we trusted their digital creations because we trusted their creator, even viewing them as authoritative. Prior to 2022, interpretations of God's word, even those rendered digitally, had a certain fidelity. But when AI takes over our virtual experiences, to what extent is it "real?"
And herein lies the problem with AI tools, and the great challenge they pose to our idea of church. Anyone can prompt a tool like ChatGPT to create digital content on their behalf. This moment is the start of a challenge of authority, where all AI systems have the freedom to interpret scripture for themselves, and the power to project that interpretation as a definitive answer. In such a culture, words of any sort, including the Word of God, can and will be repeatedly contested. They can then copy and paste the output of those tools and claim it as their own work.
Suddenly, the blog post by our senior pastor is no longer his or her reflection on Romans chapter 8, but the output of a predictive algorithm.
Even the sermon manuscript that is read from the pulpit could be the copied words of a large language model.
For what ChatGPT lacks in theological validity it more than makes up for in coherence and clarity.
Is ChatGPT's take on Romans 8 proof-texting, or is it looking at the arc of Paul's entire body of literature?
Does this AI interpretation rely on a dialectic of Law & Gospel, or is it beholden to the American prosperity gospel? Are its reflections Lutheran, Catholic, Unitarian, or Agnostic? We cannot answer such questions. All we have are the words the tool produces - compelling, cogent words, devoid of citation or footnotes. In a digital ecosystem saturated with artificial intelligence, our virtual experiences may come to be replete with voices that are fragmentary, untrustworthy, and potentially even deceitful.
A post-ChatGPT culture may come to be defined by an eroded trust in words presented digitally. Even interpretations of scripture may come to stand on flimsy ground.
There are no easy solutions to this challenge. That is, no easy solutions other than to remain committed to a church that is instituted by both Word & Sacrament.
AI tools have the power to project an unreliable word.
AI tools cannot change or affect the sacraments.
They cannot dilute the physical elements of bread, wine, and water shared by analog communities around physical fonts and tables. Sacraments, the synthesis of God's words, physical signs, and the Spirit's faith, give life and salvation. When all our other words start to fail us, we can still place our faith in the words spoken around the font or before the table. When the authority of the words we read online is called into question, the validity of the words spoken by sacramental communities is retained.
Perhaps the unintended impact of AI on Christian ministry is that it will draw us back to old-fashioned sacramentality. It could well be that the further our digital technologies advance, the more our culture will react by seeking out the analog. The more AI accelerates, the more our culture will search for the sacramental.
In this emerging digital ministry moment, the church can still be inviting, connecting, and hospitable in digital spaces. But the unreliability of online voices will leave us wanting something more.
It is in the physical elements of water, wine, and bread, experienced while standing shoulder to shoulder with Christian communities, that we must come to put our trust. Just maybe this ancient expression of Christian community will prove to be a balm for a world inundated with unreliable, artificial words.
@ryanpanzer is the author of two books on digital ministry.