AI is already shaping church life and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It will impact everything from how we work to how we learn. It will most certainly impact faith formation and our theological imaginations. Already, the most widely used AI tools have ingested the entirety of the Christian canon, along with innumerable commentaries, devotionals, and reflections. OpenAI’s tool ChatGPT, for example, can summarize the book of Ecclesiastes, explain what theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin thought of the book, and provide guidance on how to respond to the text within daily life. More than providing summaries of scripture, these tools can also generate answers to questions like “Is my work meaningful,” “How do I explain the death of a loved one to my young children,” and “What should I look for when selecting a faith community?” It will even respond to deeply personal prompts like, “I am burnt out” or “I am struggling with anxiety.”
But as leaders, we are not just passive objects in this story. AI may be shaping the cultural and technological environment, but we also have an opportunity to shape norms around its usage and in the process to raise important ethical and theological questions about how one can and should use these powerful tools. AI represents a seismic change in both technology and culture. Faith communities ought not stand by idly and watch the accelerating deployment of these tools. This is a moment that demands the church’s creativity, curiosity, and thoughtfulness.
In this essay, we set out to describe a philosophy of use that places human spiritual flourishing at its center. After describing this philosophy of use, we will offer concrete examples of how AI can be used in congregational contexts to promote our communities' well-being.
Utilizing AI in a human-centered way should not only be about increasing our capacity to do more work. Maximum productivity is not a virtue. Instead, we should deploy AI to help us connect with actual communities. By organizing information and creating coherence out of our experiences, AI can declutter some of the noise from our day-to-day lives. In doing so, it can help to initiate conversations of meaningful spiritual depth. As church leaders, we ought to learn to channel this process towards spiritually nourishing ends, using AI generated content for conversation, discernment, and spiritual formation. By doing this, we will learn to use AI to help our communities become more human.
From productivity to curiosity
Currently available AI tools are highly effective at making us more efficient at work that is related to communication, visual textual content development, data summary, and the entry level triage of human needs. We should make use of these capabilities in ways that enable us to tend more carefully and effectively to the human work of caring for souls, accompanying others in times of longing and loss, and promoting human flourishing.
It is well documented that AI can make us more efficient at procedural tasks. From summarizing data sets to organizing communications, systems like ChatGPT can create coherence out of clutter. Culture commentators have had much to say on these capacities. Predictions range from a future where we are all made more efficient and fulfilled to a future where we are all unemployed. It is no surprise that much of the attention to AI has been focused on what tasks we ought to outsource to these new technologies. It is also worth noting that a similarly wide range of concerns are often articulated at times of immense technological change.
But AI for ministry is about far more than productivity and efficiency. Inevitably, our communities will turn to these systems not just for task completion but with significant questions on what it means to live a good and meaningful life. One can ask ChatGPT if their work is impactful, or if their anxiety is treatable, or if their faith is meaningful because these questions can be asked without any associated stigma. In this sense, ChatGPT has created an alternative to the sacred spaces of Christian communities.
If we are to use AI in a human-centered way, we cannot cede these essential questions to large language models. Rather, we must learn to extend such conversations, which will initiate in cyberspace, to the analog spaces of Christian community. A philosophy of AI for ministry views these tools as sidekicks for initiating a dialogue. A church leader might encourage the use of these tools as a means for initial exploration. By cultivating a psychologically safe church community where one is free to ask big questions, the same leader also encourages the transfer of this inquiry from the screen to the small group. In this way, AI becomes a tool for encouraging our curiosity. The content it generates provides a sort of fodder for deeply human conversations taking place in analog communities.
Articulating faith narratives with AI assistance
Sharing one’s faith story is a deeply formative event, yet one that is often peripheral to many mainline Christian communities. The practice of offering testimony is far more common in evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal churches. This is an unfortunate reality, given that the recollection of God’s work in the world is as ancient as the Old Testament itself, and is particularly prominent in the psalms and other collections of Hebrew poetry. Perhaps the most significant reason that we don’t take up this narrative exercise more often in the church is the confidence one must have to create and share one’s story. To share a testimony, faith footprint, or faith reflection is to make one’s faith come alive. Unfortunately, this is a spiritual practice that has long been accessible only to the privileged few who have the requisite educational background and skills to translate lived experience into cohesive story through a theological lens.
Still, to create a coherent story of how one’s life is part of God’s story is to solidify one’s faith, and even commitment to one’s church. AI can be an equalizer in this formative spiritual practice. Lacking in its theological imagination, AI cannot take on this task independently. But tools like ChatGPT can help us to create a coherent, compelling and persuasive narrative of our lived experience – our relationships, our struggles, our moments of triumph, our experiences with the mundane and the sublime. From simple lines of description of everyday life, these systems can give us the raw material for communal spiritual discernment. Currently available AI tools are remarkably effective at creating such simple narratives. These systems can use a stream of consciousness list of day-to-day encounters or a detailed export of calendar entries to create a coherent story of how we spend our time.
When AI provides us with coherence and the confidence to share our stories, ministers can reinterpret these narratives through a theological lens. A chatbot cannot explain how lived experience relates to the cross, nor how death and resurrection are at work in one’s personal stories. So after hearing an individual's story, a minister can contextualize it within the broader narrative of how God is active in a particular time and place. They can also create communal spaces where everyone's stories are acknowledged. In doing so, church leaders weave a vibrant tapestry from the individual narratives in a community, illustrating the myriad ways in which God manifests in lived experiences.
This essay was originally published on the Church Anew Website.