A View from the Pew: AI Sermons

Artificial intelligence, or AI, has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives. The once unthinkable idea that the work of writing and creating could be done credibly by anything other than humans has been punctured, and double-blind tests demonstrate that their work can fool even the most seasoned critics.

It should come as no surprise then that overworked ministers tasked with preparing multiple sermons, devotions, Bible studies, and articles each week would find AI a useful tool. For years beleaguered preachers have been tempted to plagiarize sermons from websites or even other preachers. They don’t do it to be deceptive. They are desperate because of the scarcity of time.

I’m not here to chastise any pastor who may be using AI to write sermons. Since I wrote a piece for my other internet presence over at New South Essays back in March, AI writing tools have improved as machines continue to learn and human users improve at crafting prompts to generate better outputs.

You may have already sat under an AI sermon already, completely unaware that the only human involvement was clicking “print” on the computer. Rather than induce paranoia about the sermons you are hearing or guilt at the amount of outside assistance you seek in preparation of a sermon, my challenge to sermon listeners and sermon writers is to use this moment to revisit the idea of the sermon. It’s long past time we rethought everything we hold true about the proclamation and elaboration of scripture in worship, from the length of the sermon to the placement within the service, to the whole point of the exercise.

We can start by asking ourselves, both preachers and pew sitters, this simple question about each sermon: “Could this have been written by a computer?”

My day job is in higher education, which has been directly and dramatically affected by the explosion of AI-generated content. The college application essay and the class-assigned research paper are now subject to being compromised by computer-generated work, and enrollment administrators as well as professors are looking for tools and techniques to prompt students to generate their own work.

One way we have been doing that at my university is to change the essay prompt so that more of the students’ personal experiences come to bear on the question. We even posted AI use guidelines for students seeking admission that says, “We value authentic self-expression, and you should not copy and paste any content you did not create directly into any part of your application, essay, or supplemental materials. AI can be a useful collaborative tool to help you brainstorm and edit elements of your application, but ultimately, we want to learn about you from you.”

I think it’s fair for us to ask that of our preachers as well. Don’t just craft a sermon that is a soulless regurgitation of facts, Bible verses, and a compilation of Biblical commentary through the centuries. Engage the listener at a personal level where they live. Comfort and challenge listeners at the intersection of the divine and the daily.

If a Biblical text poses a particular challenge for you as a pastor, tell us. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. If you are moved by a story or character arc, paint that picture for us. If you have an experience in your life that is an example of the text, share it.

Even if you are short on time and you don’t think you’ve done justice to the text that week, prayerfully engage in a dialogue with scripture and invite the congregation into it with you. In short, trust the Holy Spirit to do its work in the process of proclamation.

The best use of AI in sermon preparation to my mind is to use it to check your work. Write your sermon on your own. Then ask AI to generate one on the same text and topic. If your sermon sounds like the AI sermon, then take a different, more personal approach.

If in this way AI helps us get better at writing and listening to sermons, then I think the AI revolution may have a worthwhile impact on worship. If it’s a crutch for busy ministers to mark off an item on their to-do list for the week and passive parishioners glean nothing of importance from the message, AI will be just another way authentic worship is eroded by technology.

No, this article was not written by artificial intelligence. It might be the result of limited intelligence, maybe, but it came straight from my heart.

That’s what I’m asking of our preachers in light of this most recent technological advancement.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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