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AI in the Pulpit

As pastors shuffle responsibilities, Artificial Intelligence offers to help. Should pastors accept?

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As artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly advancing, harnessing its abilities is becoming a frequent topic of conversation among church leaders. As pastors, more are considering AI’s assistance in various tasks, including creating, developing, and repurposing sermons. Others, however, worry that relying on AI undermines the pastoral calling and threatens to divorce pastors from communicating with God.

Last year, AI ministry think tank Gloo presented its first AI and the Church Hackathon, where 41 participants worldwide met to advance solutions targeted at using AI-based technology to serve churches with the hope of receiving financing from a $1-million funding pool.

Many technologies were already in development, but the hackathon brought together like-minded Christian technologists to solve many logistical problems. The creators have since formed and cultivated a number of AI tools that can generate themes for sermons, recommend scriptures, give historical context, create social media posts, and transform sermons into conversation topics and devotionals.

“Turbocharge your preaching with the power of an AI assistant for creative sermon ideas,” says Sermon Maker, which touts fresh, customizable sermons rolling out every week.

Another AI platform, Pulpit AI, repurposes a sermon into multiple media forms. “Turn one sermon into unlimited content. Deepen engagement and resource your Church with AI-generated material taken from a single sermon,” its website says.

Although a survey Gloo conducted last August says a majority of leaders (54%) are uncomfortable with the emergence of AI, a study conducted this month by Barna Group (a Gloo partner) says that three in four U.S. pastors (77% ) agree that God can work through AI.

However, only one in 10 pastors (12%) are comfortable using AI to write sermons—though two in five (43%) see its benefits in sermon preparation and research.

Soon, AI will be built into everything we use, says Pastor David Thorne, who leads AI for Churches, a resource reference for churches seeking to understand and use technology for their ministries.

Thorne added that every platform we use will eventually include AI, and therefore, “It’s a matter of whether we are going to choose to lean into it and use it to help us do what we do better, faster than we’re doing it right now.”

Thorne is also one of the developers for Sermon Spark, a sermon writing tool claiming to give the pastor back their most limited resource: time.

“We’re never proponents of people saying ‘I created this’ if it was created through AI—but we want to augment what God is doing in and through your life, in and through your ministry, in and through your preaching and teaching by utilizing the tools you have access to that were not available before,” Thorne said.

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The Barna survey shows a significant jump in the attitudes of pastors considering AI to write a full-blown sermon or using specific AI tools to assist in controlled tasks of the writing process.

The technical jargon classifies the two approaches as either creating AI-generated, or AI-assisted content.

Thorne compared the latter to the likes of using Wikipedia as a source. “It’s a great starting point, but it’s not the main place to work,” he said. An AI-assisted approach is designed to serve as more of a wall to bounce ideas off of than a machine producing a complete sermon.

Thorne told MinistryWatch that when he uses his platform to prepare for sermons, he starts with the points he wants to make, but “I am still pleading with God to take my disjointed ideas and put them into something He can use. Having more information doesn’t solve the core need for the pastor: the tool presents cool ideas, but I need God’s help.”

Thorne, who once oversaw 10 ministries, said that meetings, hospital visits, and event planning consume the time when pastors could be seeking God. “Then there is Christmas, New Year’s, and youth events—churches constantly schedule events, and each event comes with marketing, graphics, volunteer signups, where to host it, and who is in charge,” he said “A lot of that stuff, including the budget for it all, lands on the pastor’s desk.”

Are pastors burnt out?

Stuart Strachan, pastor and founder of The Pastor’s Workshop, told MinistryWatch that macro-level societal changes are making it increasingly challenging for pastors to be as effective in their roles.

In many cases, there’s a breakdown between the pastor’s personal vision for ministry and the vision held by the congregation, creating tension within the church community.

As a result, pastors find themselves stretched thin, attempting to balance their role as visionary leaders, spending time crafting sermons that resonate, and providing spiritual care and guidance to their people.

“Before you know it, it’s Friday, and he hasn’t even gotten into the biblical texts, let alone research commentaries, historical contexts, or language meanings.”

Often, this workload leaves pastors feeling overwhelmed and burned out, he says, and tools like AI offer a tempting solution, providing help in sermon preparation and alleviating some of the burdens associated with pastoral ministry.

“But,” Strachan added, “sermons are not TED talks. It is important for the pastor to wrestle with the text with what they’re going to preach. If it doesn’t hit you first, how are you going to make an impact?”

Retired Pastor Hershal York pushes back on the idea of burnout.

York, who is also the Dean of The School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, referenced Jonathan Edwards, Hudson Taylor, and Christians in religiously oppressed countries who risk their lives to meet two at a time underground as a comparison.

“The window of freedom in the U.S. is unprecedented. Yet, it is closing, so we think it is worse than ever,” he told MinistryWatch.

York added he does not discount burnout but desires to help pastors put things in perspective: “We’re to follow a Savior, who said to, ‘take up your cross.’ It’s supposed to be hard—there is no cushion—we died when we were baptized.”

York said burnout is not an argument for using AI and predicts its usage will contribute to perpetuating the pastor’s problem by cutting him off from time alone with God.

“The very process of being in the Word soothes the heart,” he said. “My ability to preach to my people is shaped by all the time spent in the Word.

“Who would I be if I had a way to shortcut that process?”

Pandora’s box?

Other pastors have likened the church’s embrace of AI technology to opening Pandora’s Box and warned that utilizing AI to write sermons “outsources the Holy Spirit” by bypassing a pastor’s most critical work.

In an episode of Preacher’s Talk, three pastors weighed their concerns that regularly using AI tools to write leaves one beholden to the aggregated data and undermines the most critical parts of a pastor’s role.

Furthermore, AI dependency on writing could potentially foster the inability to read and write, they said, adding that many already struggle to organize and express thoughts—tasks as simple as filling out Valentine’s Day cards.

But most of those on both sides of the coin agree that writing an entire sermon using AI is dishonest and undermines the pastor’s calling. All of those interviewed by MinistryWatch said, in their own way, that AI is just the newest medium of an opportunity to abuse: those who would plagiarize books or pass someone else’s sermons as their own are the ones likely to exploit AI for selfish gain.

Uncharted Ethics

As AI continues to rapidly become part of everything we use, hot topics of debate revolve around what is acceptable when it comes to issues such as privacy, AI bias, transparency, and intellectual property rights. Technologists in the Christian space are developing resources and networks like the AI Ethics Collective to educate and discuss these things.

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Jessica Eturralde

Jessica Eturralde is a military wife of 18 years and mother of three who serves as a freelance writer, TV host, and filmmaker. Bylines include Yahoo, Huffington Post, OC16TV.