Nick Skytland likes to ask pastors a question.

“Have you ever considered that the biggest mission field in the world is nowhere in the physical world?” he will say.

“It’s actually the digital world.”

Usually when he asks that, the NASA chief technologist, whose day job is focused on getting astronauts back to the moon, just gets blank stares.

For a few days in October, though, Skytland was surrounded by people who do know the scope and scale of the digital world. And if they didn’t respond to him, it was because they were busy working with artificial intelligence programs to develop real-life solutions to take faith to the digital mission field.

About 200 people gathered at the tech company Gloo’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, for the first-ever “AI and the Church” hackathon. Gloo, which is dedicated to connecting and equipping the faith community, invited 41 teams to compete for $250,000 in prizes and $750,000 in additional funding. Skytland and a NASA colleague, Ali Llewellyn, cohosted the event.

The “hackers” worked on one of four challenges: streamlining church administration, equipping the church, deepening intimacy with God, and pushing “beyond boundaries.”

They lounged on couches and hunched over laptops at tables across the headquarters’ open workspace, part of an old building Gloo renovated and modernized. Some wore noise-canceling headphones, blocking out any distractions from their work. Others chatted and made new friends. Still others worked together on problems with their projects.

Basil Technologies’ team wrestled with the limitations of AI-generated illustrations.

The faith-based tech nonprofit, with offices in San Francisco and Seattle, was working on a “kidechism”—an algorithm that would take complicated religious texts, such as the Westminster Catechism, and make them easier for kids to understand. The program they were using generated friendly, movable animal stickers to make the learning experience appealing and interactive.

The AI produced great-looking sheep. Each had a distinct face with a different expression. But for some reason, the program had problems with monkeys. They just looked weird. They ran into other limitations with the AI, too.

“If you try to generate an AI storybook just blindly, it can look really terrible,” Basil Tech’s chief technology officer Sang Tian told CT. “We distilled it to background and stickers because we realize simpler stuff like this, AI is more apt to do.”

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Testing the limits is part of the point of a hackathon, according to Gloo cofounder and CEO Scott Beck.

“A hackathon allows the responsible utilization of AI to solve some very practical problems,” he said, “and the advance of things like human flourishing and growth journeys.”

Not everyone is excited about the possibilities of AI. A recent survey conducted by Gloo and Barna found that only 8 percent of Christians are interested in using the tech to study the Bible. And more than two-thirds say they wouldn’t trust AI to teach them about Christianity. Few are ready to invite the algorithms to take over spiritual discipleship at their church.

But the hackathon organizers and contestants are taking the “If you build it, they will come” approach.

A team from BibleMate, for example, worked on a Bible study chatbot. Hope Media Group, which started in 1982 as a Christian radio station in Houston, worked on an AI-powered prayer guide. Dream City Church, a multisite Assemblies of God church based in Phoenix, developed tech that can produce customized spiritual growth plans.

Others worked on tracking volunteer teams or transforming an online sermon into social media posts. One project was designed to coach people in evangelism.

“Technologists are the frontline to help our churches,” Llewellyn said.

One participant, Liz B. Baker, used her experience in corporate consulting and ministry to survey 52 churches, with an eye toward growth and discipleship. She found that a common concern among pastors was whether or not their sermons had any tangible impact.

“Many of the pastors are frustrated that people leave church on a Sunday [and] go right back in the world and forget what they’ve learned,” Baker said. “I’ve heard so many pastors really wanting their congregants to apply what they’re hearing on a Sunday morning versus just hearing it and moving on with their lives.”

Baker said creating large amounts of customized content every week is taxing for a large church and nearly impossible for a small one. Maybe AI could help? She joined a team working on a program to produce content that encourages additional learning throughout the week.

Another team produced a program with a similar idea, seeking to extend a pastor’s work into the digital space. developed a tool that can answer theological questions from a specific pastor’s viewpoint by synthesizing that person’s body of work. It won the hackathon’s award for “best generative AI tool.”

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BibleMate won best product design, while Alpha UK took home another award for a tool to train small group leaders.

“Our hope is twofold,” Skytland said. “One, that we raise up a generation of technologists that want to serve and walk alongside the church. And number two, that we raise up churches that are using technology to reach the world.”

Five other tech teams also won awards, including Basil Tech, which took home the top prize of $100,000 for “best overall value to the ecosystem.”

Kidechisms has the potential to teach spiritual lessons to many Christian kids, according to Basil Tech CEO Kevin Kim. He said it also shows the possibilities for AI—if Christians learn to embrace it.

“We took something that was inaccessible,” he told CT, “and then through AI made it accessible.”

Rachel Pfeiffer is a senior associate editor at Focus on the Family. She reported this piece from Boulder, Colorado.

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