What should ministers do about artificial intelligence? Over the last year or so, we’ve been inundated with breathless stories about ChatGPT and similar programs that eerily mimic, equal, or surpass the voice, language, and powers of the human mind.
Some of us have had fun with them (“Please write a Shakespearean sonnet in celebration of the San Antonio Spurs”); some of us are already seeing them used in the workplace. Those of us who teach young people have been scrambling to rewrite assignments, since AI is basically a perfect cheating machine.
But what about churches? And what about the church’s leaders?
Some have argued that AI is like other technology, a neutral tool that can be used for either good or ill. If the end served is the mission of Christ, then the means of AI is not only justified; it’s a no-brainer.
Moreover, though their footprint is expanding, well-funded, large-staffed megachurches aren’t representative of the average congregation, neither here in the States nor around the world. Most churches are small and under-resourced, their pastors exhausted and stretched thin. As Christian communities continue to crawl out from beneath COVID-19’s long shadow, surely relieving the pressure from ministers’ packed schedules and overflowing commitments is a worthy goal.
And if AI can do that, as a young Taiwanese pastor recently argued in an article reprinted at CT, then why say no to this time-saving, labor-saving technology? It’s not as though ministers forsake other digital tools. They have email and smartphones and Google Calendar. They don’t ride a horse and buggy to the office.
Above all, suppose AI could eliminate the bulk of a minister’s busywork: the inefficient box-checking that saps energy and takes time from pastoral care. Wouldn’t the effect, on balance, be positive? A net win?
In what follows, I’m going to suggest the answer is no. Not because the arguments above are unreasonable; not because all digital technology is evil; not because Christians should be alarmist or apocalyptic about artificial intelligence. You don’t have to believe the sky is falling to decline ChatGPT a role in your ministry. You don’t have to use a dumb phone or live off the grid to agree that some technologies don’t have a place in the life of God’s church.
The first question for ministers regarding any new technology is not how but whether. The difference between the two is important. Christians should never assume in advance that a given technology is suitable for the gospel. Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t.
It’s not that all technology is guilty until proven innocent. It’s that a verdict either way is required—and verdicts require human judgment. Wisdom, in other words, is necessary for Christian adoption of new tools. Wise discernment is nonnegotiable. And both wisdom and discernment require (among other things) discipline, leadership, patience, and corporate practices of decision-making. No pastor is competent to answer this question alone. It requires the church. And the church takes time.
Next, we should ask an additional question: What are the primary tasks of ministry? The classic answer, laid out most simply by John Calvin but common across Christian tradition, is the service of Word and sacrament. A pastor is called by Christ to preach and teach the gospel, to baptize and administer the Lord’s Supper, to lead Christ’s body to worship him by his Spirit, and to shepherd Christ’s flock through times of plenty and times of lack.
These tasks cannot and should not be replaced by lifeless technology, though technology may be able to aid or mediate some of the work. For example, a sermon recording may be distributed to those not present to hear it. Or consider calling a parishioner by phone: This isn’t a substitute for pastoral care; it’s using a technological medium to facilitate that care.
Even these cases, as obvious as they seem, require prudence. If you only called and never visited hospitals, prisons, or living rooms, you would be shirking your duty. A preacher whose sermons were delivered exclusively in podcast form would be failing to minister to an actual body of believers. Extensions of ministry are just that: They expand or enrich concrete pastoral practice. They are not its substitute.
AI and ChatGPT represent the temptation of substitution rather than extension. They make a tantalizing, almost irresistible offer: They’ll do your work for you. They’ll write the sermon, exegete the passage, draft the lesson plan, and outline the discussion questions while you get to the real work of ministry.
But wait. That can’t be right. We just saw that those very things are the work of ministry. Ministers can’t be freed from writing sermons and preparing lessons. That’s the heart of the job. A preacher who wants to be liberated from preparing to preach sounds like someone who wants to quit altogether. There may be good reasons to quit, but AI isn’t an acceptable workaround. The pastoral vocation is what it is.
Artificial intelligence also fails to serve the ends of preaching and teaching in profound ways. The thing to see at the outset is that study and writing aren’t a mere means to an end—unfortunate but unavoidable. Both entail a crucial spiritual and intellectual process that should not be circumvented.
Pastors are students of God’s Word. They are learners in the school of Christ. He teaches them by the mouths of his servants, the prophets and apostles, who speak through Holy Scripture. There is no shortcut to sitting at their feet. The point—the entire business—of pastoral ministry is this calm, still, patient sitting, waiting, and listening. Every pastor lives according to the model of Mary of Bethany. Strictly speaking, only one thing is necessary for the work of ministry: reclining at the feet Jesus and hanging on his every word (Luke 10:38–42).
In this sense, no one can do your studying for you. I’ll say more below about appropriate forms of learning from professional scholars and commentaries, but that’s not what I have in mind here. What I mean is that studying God’s Word is part of what God has called you to do; it’s more than a means to an end. After all, one of its ends is your own transformation, your own awesome encounter with the living God. That’s why no one can listen to Jesus in your stead. You must listen to Jesus. You must search the Scriptures. This is what it means to serve the church.
The same goes for writing, whether it be a sermon from the pulpit or a lesson in the classroom. Writing is an iterative process. You discover what you will say—indeed, what you think—in the time that writing takes. It’s full of stops and starts, dead-ends and cul-de-sacs, wrong turns and bursts of inspiration. The Spirit is present throughout, albeit discernible often only in retrospect.
Moreover, preaching and teaching are personal acts. When I preach, it is I and no one else speaking. I speak as myself, from the heart and out of my life. God, in his grace, speaks through me—but I remain the medium, the weak and earthen vessel of his holy power. This is just how God wants it; it’s a feature of the gospel, not a bug. Christ wants his heavenly voice to be heard in and through Paul’s voice and Apollos’s voice and Peter’s, and even yours and mine. One may be frail, another eloquent, another bold, another quiet, another professorial, but all these are human voices in every case—distinct, individual, and unique, created and called to speak aloud with one voice the one gospel of the one God for all peoples (Rom. 15:6).
Artificial intelligence shortchanges this marvelous personal intersection. Pastors are the Lord’s co-workers (1 Cor. 3:9). ChatGPT is not. ChatGPT has neither soul nor body, is neither “he” nor “she” but only “it.” It is a thing, not a person. It cannot preach or teach. It does not know the gospel. It has no voice, and certainly no voice God’s people need to hear in public worship. The human voice is alive, gathering and reflecting a lifetime’s worth of embodied response to the call of God. Not so a machine.
At this point, it is worth recalling what ChatGPT is: a “large language model” (LLM). Though it may well mark a milestone in the development of what we call “artificial intelligence,” for now, it is effectively a hyper-fast digital assistant, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, that performs certain kinds of task for users. It has been “trained” (note the anthropomorphic language we use) on reams of data from the internet as well as various pre-digital sources. Based on that training, it’s capable of producing coherent text that usually fulfills the user’s request. And because the text appears almost instantly and the sources imitated are so numerous—if undisclosed and therefore uncited—the LLM appears human-like, intelligent, even sentient.
It isn’t, though. This is why the most common objection to my argument against AI in ministry—that it’s just a tool, no different in principle than a biblical commentary—doesn’t hold water. There is a world of difference between the two.
For one thing, commentaries and other sermon-writing aids aren’t substitutes for the pastor’s own work. They won’t write your sermon for you (however much we might like that—“N. T. Wright, please draft a 22-minute sermon on Galatians 3”). They offer one perspective, and usually just one of many. They’re guides, not ghostwriters.
For another, just as a preacher has a living voice, so does an author. Calvin’s voice is not Augustine’s is not John Wesley’s is not Karl Barth’s is not Origen’s. Each was (and is) a living soul created by God to see the world and his Word in unique ways, as a gift to the rest of God’s people. We receive their words as the gift they are when we learn from them, inhabiting their perspective on a text or the gospel or our neighbors—if only for a moment.
ChatGPT is neither living nor trustworthy. In truth, it does project a certain slant—its corporate owners will never make a profit if it regularly makes statements widely seen as inappropriate or immoral—but this is only more reason to refuse its use. An AI-generated sermon is the proclamation of a gospel sanitized and approved by Silicon Valley. It is obvious why we should want nothing to do with that.
To proclaim the gospel is to speak a human word about the divine Word become flesh. Ministers preach in and as the flesh they are, which is one and the same flesh that Christ assumed for our sake (Rom. 5:17–21). To repurpose a line from theologian Stanley Hauerwas, pastoral ministry means working with words. More than that, yes, but not less than that. The aim should not be to avoid word work but, with the Spirit’s power, to do it well.
In fact, “well” is too ambiguous. Perhaps ChatGPT writes a “better” sermon than you do, a sermon with better grammar or nicer turns of phrase. What of it? You aren’t called to be a “good” preacher, not in that sense. You’re called to be a faithful preacher. God wants you to preach his Word as the person you are, not to serve as a mouthpiece for a proprietary algorithm.
You aren’t judged by standards of eloquence—that would have disqualified Moses and Paul both! You’re judged according to your submission to Christ’s will and your fidelity to his Word. Intelligence of any kind is not the highest virtue here. The relevant virtues are obedience, honesty, and courage; faith, hope, and love. The fruit of the Spirit blooms in soul and body, not in digital devices.
Nor, it should be added, is reliance on liturgical or other “scripts” a kind of analog shortcut—the best we could do, you might say, before OpenAI came along. When I recite the Apostles’ Creed, I am submitting to the doctrine of the church as led by the Spirit over the centuries. I am not representing the words as my own (as I might by delivering an AI-generated sermon to an unsuspecting congregation); I am not outsourcing my intellect to a machine (as I might by bypassing study with ChatGPT).
The Creed is not a detour but a pathway, its well-worn course trod by countless saints who’ve gone before me. To make their steps and words my own is an act of humility, not a shortcut. It’s a chance to mortify the pride of my flesh, not a chance to save time. It’s a way to offer my heart to Christ’s bride—my mother and teacher—and to be formed by the Spirit into Christ’s own image.
In a word, I imitate the saints (1 Cor. 4:16–17) as they imitate Christ for a simple reason: because they are saints. I want their words to become my words, because their words reliably reflect him. Software does not. It will indeed shape us into its image, but that is an altogether different image than Christ’s.
As all of us (not only the church’s leaders) think about navigating these challenges together, it seems to me that there are two situations in which pastors may find themselves.
The first is that some pastors have come to believe (or are tempted to believe) that all the inglorious inefficiencies of daily ministry are a problem to solve rather than a fact to accept, or even a gift to receive with gratitude.
The second is that some pastors wish they had the kind of time I’ve outlined—but they don’t. They want to read and write and sit at the feet of Christ, but a thousand demands distract them from this all-important work.
In both cases, the remedy is the same: for elders and vestries and other governing boards to help pastors avoid the circumstances that make ChatGPT look like an attractive—or, at least, acceptable—tool for preaching. Pastors, ask for this help. Elders, give your pastors the time needed to study and serve the church in all their fallibility and finitude. Such limits cannot and should not be overcome.
My hope is that pastors will lead their churches in saying no to AI in preaching and teaching. But I hope, too, that churches will show their support of this answer, not least by honoring, compensating, and otherwise creating space for the mundane tasks of pastoral ministry. Shortcuts are less alluring when you have good work to do and enough time to do it.
Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.