Ever since ChatGPT was unleashed on the public late last year, artificial intelligence (AI) has been a hot topic. All you have to do is input a prompt, anything from “write me a poem” to “tell me the meaning of life” and you’ll get an answer. Many have been entranced since, with over 100 million users as of January.
Rev. Beth Hayward, in a livestreamed sermon she delivered at Canadian Memorial United on March 6, 2022, reflected on what AI represents in our everyday lives beyond tools like Google Maps or the generation of funny prompts.
“This hidden side of artificial intelligence reveals to us what’s true in so many other areas of our lives,” Hayward said. “That there are powers at play. There are players who have more power, more knowledge, more money, who have a disproportionate amount of say in what happens and in how this AI is used to shape our lives.”
Watch Hayward’s sermon on AI, starting at the 40-minute mark
Whether we like it or not, AI is definitely shaping our lives. Writers, artists and performers have been fiercely debating how their industries and jobs will be affected. But you might not have expected that ministers are talking about it too.
Some have been using the programs to generate sermons.
But Rev. Brad Morrison, who works at Strathroy United in Strathroy, Ont., isn’t impressed with the results.
“[ChatGPT] is drawing on a whole library of textual data that’s been fed to it,” he said. “And most of that stuff out there is conservative evangelical theology. So the kind of sermons that ChatGPT generates is awful.”
Rev. Maggie Watts-Hammond’s review isn’t much better, describing the sermons as “bland” at best. If that’s the case, does AI have any utility at all?
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Despite his misgivings, Morrison claims ChatGPT has actually improved his ability to write sermons. He maintains that he’s never used AI to give a whole sermon, but finds the act of training a bot how to write very useful.
Training a bot on ChatGPT is quite simple. You input language prompts in the program to inform what you want to generate. For example, Morrison might input, “The analogy should be non-intuitive, drawing on secondary, tertiary or accidental (non-primary) qualities of the object being compared to God,” as one such prompt.
As you go along, you add more instructions to refine the content, style, and structure. It’s also possible to program the AI yourself, but this is an easier way to train it.
“The best way to learn something is to teach someone else. To teach it to someone else, you have to be able to deconstruct the thing that you’re teaching, understand the principles and concepts that are with it,” Morrison states. “The value in ChatGPT I’m finding is, I had to articulate how it is that I approach sermon writing.”
Morrison also thinks that training an AI bot could be useful for ministry education. Being a professor as well as a minister, he noticed a growing trend of students turning in essays generated by ChatGPT, much to the dismay of many educators. To Morrison, though, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He believes this is a chance to improve student assessment strategies. Similar to how AI has helped him, he thinks getting students to train an AI bot could be a new method of assessment that forces students to dive deep into their process.
Rev. Maggie Watts-Hammond has some concerns about AI, however. One is accountability. Say, for example, someone wanted to preach that women shouldn’t be allowed to become ministers. They could present ChatGPT-generated evidence of why women shouldn’t preach, but avoid responsibility by claiming the bot said it, not them.
She also worries that AI-generated sermons could end up repetitive and derivative. After all, AI generates sermons based on existing ones, so overuse could create echo chambers and very limited perspectives.
“Questions we need to ask about this are whose values are going into it, what is being optimized, who is being left out of the conversation,” says Hayward. “And in any area of concern to us as people of faith, as long as voices are being left out, then we should be paying attention.”
Additionally, AI could lead to the spread of misinformation, Watts-Hammond says the bots draw information from various online sources which aren’t always verified. Even well-meaning preachers could end up spreading falsehoods.
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ChatGPT may also affect job security in many industries. After all, a bot that generates content at an inhuman rate is hard to ignore. Will it run ministers out of their jobs, though? Rev. Glenn McCullough, an assistant professor of practical theology and spiritual care at Emmanuel College, doesn’t think so.
“I think the impact will be less in terms of professions that focus on relationships,” says McCullough. “Ministry is about relationships and building communities. So in that respect, I think AI will have less of an impact on those particular sectors.”
While AI-generated sermons are still imperfect, they’ll likely evolve to be better than organically written ones. So instead of competing with AIs on who can write the better sermon, ministers should focus on the human aspects of their jobs.
“In 10 years from now, nobody remembers anything that I said from the pulpit,” says Morrison. “But they’ll remember I was there in the flesh and blood, and maybe I made them feel some things. So, can Alexa do that? No, not yet.”
Alexandra Lee is an intern at Broadview.
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