Very recently, in the city of Furth, Germany, a most unusual worship service was held in St. Paul’s Church. As the people entered, a ChatGPT chatbot asked the people of church to rise from their pews and praise the Lord.
But the real news is that the sermon was preached by a bot. It preached to the packed church. People had heard of the event and had come to see. The image of a bearded black man appeared on a screen above the church altar. The A.I. preached about leaving the past behind, focusing on the present, overcoming fear of death, and never losing trust in Jesus Christ.
I have no doubt the technology will improve. But what struck me especially, was two things. First, the message itself. My best understanding of how A.I. works, is that it simply gathers information from a wide variety of sources and synthesizes them into a whole. The message, sadly, reflects what so many church goers hear. They hear messages that are psychological in nature and apply spiritual language to encourage people with their problems in life. Gone is the gospel. Gone is Jesus as the radiance of the glory of God whose throne rules. Gone also is a faithful verse by verse exposition of scripture, explaining the passage itself and the evident application that any passage demands. The A.I. sermon, if the summary I read was correct, is a reflection of what many hear. It reminded me how desperately we need a new reformation, and a reacquaintance with the enormity of our sin, as well as justification by faith. We need sermons that reflect the glorious truth, that we desperately need a saviour, for we are lost. We need to hear that our only hope is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, as is described in Scripture alone. The A.I. sermon, by synthesizing what people already heard, demonstrates the poverty in the pulpit.
But of course, there is a second concern. While an A.I. sermon at a worship service is novel and unique, preachers who plagiarize what they preach is not new. As a preacher who has prepared sermons for over 4 decades, I know the temptation. The study that is required necessitates a great deal of time spent in the Bible, struggling with its meaning. As well, the preacher is faced with the text in his own personal life. At times, repentance is necessitated. At other times, it may launch the preacher into new understandings, or even into neglected truths that have been neglected for too long. At times, when I have studied, I have had to stop, get on my knees, and reflect on the holiness of the God I serve.
Following study of the text comes the phase of sermon preparation, where the preacher moves from a textual outline to a sermonic outline. Points of application are considered. The unique nature of the congregation he serves is considered. Some of his people have recently suffered loss. Still others have been overwhelmed by an unexpected joy. When the pastor applies his messages, he is mindful that he who is one of them has a message from the one true God.
But the message is not yet done. When the preacher ascends the pulpit, he is mindful he stands in a holy place. For it pleased the Lord through the folly of preaching to save those who believe. Hence, the preaching act itself fills the faithful preacher with both a sense of wonder, and a sense of reverent fear.
The A.I. revolution is troubling on many fronts. But from the perspective of worship, it presents an alternative to genuine faith. For the word did not become a sophisticated computer program. Indeed, the Word became flesh.