Robot Rector: Computer-Generated Sermons

"robot priest" designed by E. Rowe

I had been reading about people using Artificial Intelligence (or AI) to write text for them. You can enter a prompt like ‘write a poem about winter’ or ‘summarize the international news from the last two weeks’ and the computer can generate as much or as little text as needed. I found an app online and told it to ‘write the opening paragraphs of an Anglican Palm Sunday sermon’. This is what it gave me:

‘On Palm Sunday, we gather to remember when Jesus entered Jerusalem in a triumphant procession. As he entered, the people waved palms and threw garments at his feet in praise of his teachings. We remember this significant event in Jesus’ life and the powerful message it sends to us today.

We are reminded of the importance of humility, of walking in the path of Jesus. He humbly accepted the praises of the people on that day, but he also knew that what lay ahead was greater than the glory of that moment. Jesus went on to make the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, and his example of selflessness and courage shows us the way to be more like him…’

I’ve seen people ask an AI to ‘write a Christmas sermon’. The results are fascinating. The computer picks up styles and themes from other sermons or religious articles online and produces a pretty reasonable facsimile. Reflecting on the results of these messages, there’s a common refrain: ‘I’ve heard better… but I’ve also heard worse.’ If computers can write sermons that are indistinguishable from those written by human preachers, then why don’t we just get them to write all our sermons?

Computers may be able to do a lot of things, but there’s no replacement for human preachers. An AI (or a parishioner) can access a lot of information on the internet, but they can’t always tell when the information it finds is biased, racist, or theologically at odds with the church it’s writing for. When Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8, he asks the man if he understands the words of Isaiah that he’s reading. ‘How can I,’ the eunuch replies, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ One of the roles of preachers is to help people read and understand the Bible, in ways that are still beyond what Artificial Intelligence can do.

I once heard sermons referred to as ‘the record of a conversation between the Word of God and the People of God’. Sermons are prepared and preached in the context of a faith community. They reflect how your congregation is attracted, challenged, and transformed by the Gospel. A computer cannot form authentic relationships within a church family the same way a person can. The only way for an AI to get that level of familiarity with people is through the kind of data-harvesting that allows websites to target ads to specific individuals or groups. One of the greatest compliments people will pay to a good sermon is that ‘it felt like you were talking directly to me.’ When a person can do this, it may be because they’ve spent time with you and have come to appreciate the way you see the world. When a computer can do this, it’s probably because they’ve had access to your social media streams, your search history, and your Amazon orders.

The first sermons I wrote were often mediocre attempts. People had usually heard better, but they’d also heard worse. As I got more experience and learned to approach the Gospels with the same questions my parishioners were asking, I started to get better. As technology improves, computer-generated sermons will also get better. But perhaps rather than teaching computers to write sermons that are indistinguishable from the output of humans, we need to spend more time making sure humans can write sermons that are distinguishable from what a computer can do!

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