Since ChatGPT became publicly accessible last year, we’ve heard reports that artificial intelligence (AI) will replace jobs and disrupt other aspects of our lives. Such changes may not currently be apparent to individual local churches in Taiwan. But in recent months, a number of Christian thinkers have been discussing how AI might either aid or possibly replace humans when it comes to pastoral care and preaching.
Several pastors point out that AI lacks physical, emotional, or empathetic abilities, though I personally believe that these limitations may one day be overcome technologically. In addition, they note that AI’s social bias, monopolization, and lack of spirituality when it comes to data labeling. But these are the same dilemmas humans are facing.
Many have cautioned that AI will have an ideological bias, but we can actually use the intelligence of ChatGPT to examine whether our words could unintentionally offend congregants with different political identities and positions.
As a young pastor who is optimistic about what role AI can play in my work, I recently spent six months exploring whether ChatGPT could be beneficial to my own ministry. After using this tool for half a year, I believe AI offers ways for pastors to more efficiently work and balance their many responsibilities.
Working smarter, not harder
For many pastors, there is never enough time for sermon preparation. When I was in seminary, one of my classes required students to draw up a schedule of a typical week in a pastor’s life. The professor critiqued the schedule I submitted as having “too much time for sermon preparation.” Indeed, after researching and writing a sermon and dealing with all the administrative work, leading additional ministries, serving as an official of our presbytery, and continuing my education, I find my time for actual pastoral care is very limited.
Consequently, pastors often rely on liturgical manuals or official sermon templates, or they recycle their own past sermons for recurring events like invocations, fundraising activities, weddings, and funerals. Yet these tools require additional personalization and human touches too. Thus, it might be helpful to think about what recurring tasks or events might be automated.
If we use ChatGPT to assist in creating pastoral notes, personal biographies, prayer letters, news reports, etc. (making sure to protect personal information and privacy), we can effectively generate customized templates. ChatGPT can generate scripts for newer ministers to follow, aiding us in our ministry and leaving more time for one-on-one pastoral care and visitation.
Further, ChatGPT can instantly generate a paraphrase of a Scripture passage or write discussion questions for a college student fellowship or a community small group. I could ask ChatGPT to summarize and synthesize various Bible commentaries and content from reference books that I feed it to create a rough research report on a certain theme.
When I need examples or applications for a sermon, I go to ChatGPT for ideas. For example, I can ask ChatGPT to write a story of Jesus riding a motorcycle into town based on Scripture and then can add more context and continue to adjust the plot to make my point.
In seminary, I wrote first-person sermon assignments with a golden calf as the main character and found the process difficult. When I asked ChatGPT to write a similar type of sermon, the result was actually no worse than what I personally wrote.
One habit I implemented when I began my AI experiment was noting reflections and thoughts that occurred to me while having my daily quiet time. Later I input them in ChatGPT to synthesize these thoughts and help build out my sermon.
Some of us may have already experienced entering a text into ChatGPT and asking it to generate a short sermon or sermon outline of 500–800 words. (One option is the AI Sermon Outline Generator available on the OpenBible website.) If necessary, users can expand from the outline option to a full sermon that is at least moderately accurate and free of errors. Obviously, however, a 100 percent AI-generated sermon would miss the context of the speaker and the congregation.
Not a one-person show
Many see sermon writing as one of the most important components of a pastor’s work. Personally, I don’t believe sermon preparation or preaching is a one-person job. A sermon is a representation of God’s revelation. In addition to interpreting the Scriptures, in order for a particular congregation to receive it effectively, the homily must be close to the life and situation of each church member.
For the novice pastor, a sermon’s foundation is built not only on one’s own devotions but also on the writings of other pastors and spiritual predecessors. To understand and acknowledge the congregation’s context, apart from weekly interactions with church members, one also may rely on the translation of veteran local “guides.” After the sermon has taken shape, the pastor’s family members or peers may play a role in correcting and giving feedback.
In addition, sermon delivery is not a one-person affair either. We know that a congregation’s reception is affected not only by the speaker’s appearance but also by the sound control, the slide show, the music, and so on. Because of the pandemic, online services, audiovisual colleagues, and social media editors have become particularly important to online preaching; recent studies have even identified them as co-preachers. Though it is unethical to plagiarize others, it is difficult for a pastor to achieve the purpose of preaching—that is bringing people to God, making the truth clear, encouraging other believers—by relying on his or her own single-person sermon writing.
What, then, is the role of the preacher? According to Danish bishop Marianne Gaarden, preachers merely provide their own voices as vehicles for the Holy Spirit to move their congregations to receive the Word individually. In her qualitative research, Gaarden found that when a sermon is given, the church enters a “Third Room … where the listener’s own experiences are met with the words of the preacher.”
Preaching—be it preparing a sermon or delivering the words to a congregation—is a process that currently involves a speaker, the influence of numerous people living and dead, and the Holy Spirit. I believe that within these actions, there is room for the work of AI too.
Yi-Li Lin is the pastor of Chung Po Presbyterian Church, Taiwan.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Campus Magazine and is reprinted with permission. An electronic version of the issue (in Chinese) can be purchased here.