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Will AI Write the Sermon?

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Imagine it’s Sunday morning. As you walk out of the sanctuary following worship, you comment to your pastor, “Your sermon really spoke to me today. You’ve given me some things to think about and even some ways I might introduce some new habits to grow as a disciple.” The pastor smiles and notes quietly, “Thanks; I had AI help me with the sermon.” What’s your reaction? Shocked? Saddened? Disappointed? Confused as you walk to your car as you genuinely felt the Holy Spirit speaking to you?

This scenario stems from a few comments I’ve heard when talking about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for ministry. A particular social media comment on our advertisement for our recent webinar (AI for Church Excellence) stated sternly: “I can see it now. My pastor using AI for his sermon and getting a Sunday off forever.” In highlighting this comment, I don’t want to call out this person, as I’ve seen several reactions similar to this.

It is a valid fear that the broad implementation of AI is likely to disrupt several industries in the short and long term. It is also valid that parishioners may fear that the use of language learning models (LLMs) will replace the human element that is vital to well-crafted sermons and pastoral ministry as a whole. Our webinar series aimed to alleviate these fears by giving some insight and clarity regarding the use of AI in ministry.

One of the ways we try to alleviate fear is by defining some terms. AI is a broad category. In our webinar series, we noted we’re encouraging ministry leaders to leverage language learning models (LLMs). LLMs such as ChatGPT, Claude, and Perplexity, which are pre-trained algorithms, have both benefits and limitations. Engaging LLMs is not like using a search engine. LLMs are incredibly sophisticated chat partners that can converse and contribute to sermon preparation in a variety of ways, such as helping brainstorm ideas, researching a wide range of topics, and providing feedback. While LLMs can certainly contribute to sermon preparation and delivery, they are not best used for generating complete, ready-to-deliver sermons. Here's my main point: LLMs are built for conversation, not for delivering ready-made, context-specific sermons.

The fear that an LLM will write sermons and give pastors a "Sunday off forever" is a misunderstanding of what these LLMs are capable of and designed for. LLMs don't have personal experiences, relationships, emotions, or the spiritual intuition that pastors bring to their sermon preparation. They can't understand a congregation's specific needs, history, or the nuanced dynamics of a church community as the pastor should. To say LLMs could bring “God’s Word to God’s people” certainly misconstrues how we are encouraging ministry leaders to interact with LLMs.

LLMs don't have personal experiences, relationships, emotions, or the spiritual intuition that pastors bring to their sermon preparation. They can't understand a congregation's specific needs, history, or the nuanced dynamics of a church community as the pastor should.

Historically, writing sermons has been supported by a variety of sources. Early in my ministry, I met most Monday mornings with a group of pastors, and we often brainstormed ideas to enhance one another’s sermons. Bible commentaries, sermon libraries (see John Wesley’s Standard Sermons), homiletical magazines, and the vast number of sermons available on the internet have often been used to enrich sermons. These resources are still needed, but how we access them will continue to change. (Now we can meet with a group of pastors from across the globe simultaneously thanks to video conferencing, as one example.) Having served a three-point circuit and a large church as an associate pastor, I can say with confidence that ministry leaders are busy, and preaching is but one part of the many responsibilities of ministry.

What is unique, now, in using LLMs for ministry tasks, including sermon writing, is their interactive nature. Just a few of many more specific examples of how LLMs can aid sermon construction include brainstorming metaphors to fit the given audience, asking for feedback to make sure illustrations will speak to a variety of experiences, and even critiquing the theology to ensure a Wesleyan reading of Scripture.

Comments expressing fear about AI-written sermons often reveal a lack of trust between parishioners and the pastor. Church leaders should be having conversations about the proper use of LLMs (and the sermon writing process in general). It is helpful to begin this conversation by allowing everyone, clergy and laity, to express concerns that using LLMs might exacerbate human disconnection and the need for vulnerability to build authentic community. Pastors should be open about how they intend to use LLMs in ways that align with the values of the church, enhance efficiency in administrative tasks, improve quality, and ideally make more time for disciple-making and engaging with our communities.

With any new technology come skeptics, cynics, and naysayers. As optimistic (maybe even a bit naïve) as I am about using LLMs for ministry, I agree that we should be critical and discerning. Even as I encourage the use of LLMS, in no way am I suggesting AI should replace the human elements that are essential in any work of ministry. I hope you’ll consider sharing our webinar series, joining us for an upcoming live version of our webinar series, or finding other ways to be informed about the best uses for LLMs to augment ministry efforts.

When I was a youth pastor at a small-membership United Methodist church near the college campus I attended, I remember telling the pastor after her sermon how much it spoke to me. I was shocked when she told me, quietly, she got the sermon idea from sermons.com. I felt disappointed and confused. Yet, after having been a pastor, I am more aware of the demands and pressures of pastoral ministry. Being older (and hopefully wiser), I see the need for help in crafting a sermon that speaks to a variety of people and with depth about the scripture. Thus, I am less disappointed and confused. Just as God spoke through her message, I am confident God can speak through preachers using (wisely and discerningly) tools such as an AI LLM.

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I invite you to pre-register for our next AI workshop, Advanced AI for Ministry, designed to empower church leaders like you to harness the potential of AI and LLMs to elevate your ministry tasks. Through a blend of pre-recorded videos and live online workshops, this interactive workshop is your gateway to merging tradition with innovation.

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