Influence

 the shape of leadership

The Artificially Intelligent Sermon

How to navigate AI ethically

Joy E A Qualls on August 30, 2023

I was scheduled to speak on Sunday and had not budgeted my time wisely. Despite thinking often that week about the Bible passage I planned to preach from, I was behind in my preparation.

As I finally sat down to work on the message, I wondered whether I really needed to put in a late-night study and writing session. Opening an artificial intelligence (AI) app, I started typing: “Construct a sermon on a passage from … .”

Perhaps you can understand the temptation. Those of us who preach and teach need all the help we can get. I am grateful for my commentaries and study aids. I also appreciate digital tools that make crafting and delivering sermons easier, from online Bibles and lexicons to PowerPoint and spell check.

But are there limits to what we should use when preparing sermons? AI is rapidly changing the way people think about technology — and raising some serious ethical concerns. With a few prompts, large language model artificial intelligence systems, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, can churn out passable school essays, lectures, and even sermons.

Some religious leaders are already experimenting with artificial intelligence, including a rabbi who presented an AI-generated message, a pastor who used AI to write an article she published on her church’s website, and a theologian who asked AI to compose a Christmas sermon.

Although these leaders disclosed the use of AI to their audiences, such stories suggest no space is beyond the reach of this technology.

There are a number of questions one could ask at this point. Can a machine really exegete Scripture? What does all this mean for the future of ministry? Will robots one day replace pastors?

For ministers of the gospel, however, the most fundamental question hasn’t changed: What is our purpose and calling? We are not just content creators developing personal or church brands.

Jesus commissioned His Church to go and make disciples, teaching them to obey Him (Matthew 28:19–20). This is the purpose of ministry and the essence of our calling. How we present Christ’s message should matter to us because it matters to Him.

Biblical preaching is personal, credible, and Spirit empowered. These three characteristics must guide our sermon preparation ethics.

 

Personal

If preaching were simply a matter of relaying information concerning theology or the Bible, AI might have some limited usefulness.

However, our assignment involves much more than that. God calls transformed people to share transforming truth.

The apostle Paul wrote, “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15–16).

A personal relationship with Jesus informed Paul’s proclamation. The apostle’s message, life, calling, and testimony pointed to Christ’s redemptive grace.

What AI lacks is not
just a soul, but also
human warmth,
empathy, relational
connections, and an
understanding of
the community to
whom a message
is delivered.

Additionally, Paul became personally invested in the lives of many who heard his preaching. He told the Thessalonians, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8).

Paul’s ministry and message demonstrated Christ’s love and compassion. Paul walked with people on their spiritual journeys and saw God transforming their lives. This is why Paul was able to say to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? … That is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9,11).

What AI lacks is not just a soul, but also human warmth, empathy, relational connections, and an understanding of the community to whom a message is delivered.

Paul told Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

When we have a clear sense of purpose and believe our voices and investments of time and energy matter to the people God calls us to lead, we will embrace sermon preparation as the privilege and responsibility it is.

 

Credible

Effective preaching also requires trust. When we preach, people are evaluating the credibility of our testimony.

Paul told Timothy, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).

Taking credit for work AI created would be deceptive, unethical, and a form of plagiarism.

Further, the information AI produces is only as good as its programming and the digital content it gleans. And of course, not everything online is true.

Using AI-generated material comes with risk. These systems provide no source documentation and often present incorrect statements as factual. Repeating such information undermines the believability of our message.

We must not sacrifice our credibility. James 3:1 says, “We who teach will be judged more strictly.” This is not just because of our position of authority. It’s also because eternity is at stake.

Jesus said, “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). A lack of integrity in ministry can have far-reaching effects.

 

Empowered

The Bible speaks often about partnering with the Spirit in the proclamation of the gospel. Paul said, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).

There is simply no replacement for Spirit-empowered preaching.

A sermon is more than just a speech. Preaching is my spirit speaking to your spirit through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit guides the message, empowers the message, and draws people to God in response to the message (John 6:44; 16:13; Acts 1:8).

There is no shortcut for this process. AI does not have a spirit, nor can it be filled with the Holy Spirit.

The information my AI prompt generated was generally correct, but it wasn’t my work. It wasn’t even my own research. It was simply information about a passage that lacked insight or analysis.

But what the AI material really lacked was my voice, engagement with the Holy Spirit, and discernment concerning what God wanted to say to the congregation.

I closed the AI program and instead asked the Lord to meet me where I was and help me with my sermon preparation. Then I got to work.

The message I ultimately delivered wasn’t just information. It was a conversation with our community and the Holy Spirit. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

 

This article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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