Artificial Evangelist: The Church That Turned to AI for Spiritual Guidance

Artificial intelligence models like ChatGPT are increasingly becoming more popular and helpful in performing tasks like programming, research, and writing. But with all its current limitations, can artificial intelligence deliver a good sermon just like a priest, pastor, or imam would do?

A Lutheran church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth in southern Germany conducted a little “experiment” to find out. Using the ChatGPT chatbot, Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna, crafted a 40-minute service for St. Paul’s Church that included sermons, music, and prayers.

It would be the first time in history that artificial intelligence helped generate and conduct an entire church service in the history of St. Paul’s church.

“I conceived this service — but actually I rather accompanied it because I would say about 98% comes from the machine,” the 29-year-old religious scholar told the Associated Press, who covered the story of AI performing a church service.

More than 300 worshippers showed up for the experimental church service. During the service, the AI was personified by many avatars, including a black-bearded man who appeared on a massive screen above the church’s altar.

Dear friends, it is an honor for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany,” the avatar said in an expressionless face and monotonous voice.

Aside from the bearded Black man avatar, two young men and women avatars led the entire church service.

The AI church service in St. Paul’s church was just one of the hundreds of events at the convention for Protestants in the Bavarian towns of Nuremberg and Fuerth. But news of a church service generated by artificial intelligence drew such massive interest from worshippers that they formed a long queue outside the neo-Gothic church an hour before it began.

This convention, which is also called Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in German, happens every two years at different places across Germany, where thousands of believers come to pray, sing, and discuss their faith and other pressing global issues such as the Russia-Ukraine war and artificial intelligence.

The gathering for this year had the slogan “Now is the time,” which Simmerlein fed to ChatGPT when he asked the chatbot to develop a sermon.

I told the artificial intelligence, ‘We are at the church congress, you are a preacher … what would a church service look like?’” Simmerlein told ChatGPT, also asking it to include psalms, prayers, and blessings.

Simmerlein was surprised by the chatbot’s solid delivery of the church service, where ChatGPT preached about leaving behind the past, focusing on the current challenges at hand, and never losing faith in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, many limitations and hiccups also showed up during the AI church service, primarily the inability of the AI to respond to human laughter or any other reactions by the churchgoers and the service's emotionless and expressionless delivery.

Although the experimental service highlighted the limitations and even risks of using AI to deliver religious services, people like Simmerlein saw the potential of it helping religious leaders craft services for the faithful.

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