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Can AI Preach?

Can AI preach? The question was asked and answered at a church conference held in Bavaria, Germany this month- (Deutscher Evangelischer Krichentag- German Evangelical Church Congress). This conference meets once every two years to discuss current world affairs. This year the topics ranged from global warming and the war in Ukraine, to the growing presence of AI (artificial intelligence) in our daily lives. On Friday, people crowded into the sanctuary of St. Paul’s church in Furth, Germany to experience the first worship service created and led by artificial intelligence. The congregation had waited in line for hours for the opportunity to experience this first-ever AI worship. The service was the brainchild of Dr. Jonas Simmerlein, a 29-year-old theologian from the University of Vienna. He wanted to explore the capacity of AI to create worship. The resulting 40-minute service included Bible readings, hymns, prayers and even a sermon, all generated by AI. The worship leaders were four ‘avatars’- electronic images of human formsprojected onto a large screen over the altar.

When the ‘preacher avatar’ began his AI-generated sermon, he greeted the congregation: 
“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.”
Granted, an avatar projected on a screen cannot really ‘stand,’ nor does an avatar have the capacity to form ‘friendships,’ but the sermon by all reports was theologically sound and even reminded the congregation to pray and trust in Jesus. The service of worship opened with a female avatar inviting the people to “Stand and praise the Lord.” While it was an appropriate call to worship, it was a call the avatar could not answer. Praise is an act of the heart, and claiming Jesus as Lord is a commitment of the heart. While AI can talk about the heart, and talk to the heart of another, AI has no heart of its own. The final conclusion of many of the worshippers that day- the service was interesting and had solid content, but the avatars had “no heart or soul.” Can one preach without a heart or soul?

Many of you know that I am not very tech savvy. I am so thankful for our tech team that works hard to keep Lenape Valley in the modern world. As for me, I am happier with a book in hand and a conversation in person. Yet, the truth is, AI has become a regular part of our lives. I use AI to research the material for these Tuesday letters and to do my study for my sermons. AI corrects my grammar and checks my spelling. AI tells my favorite stores to keep my favorite items on the shelves. AI senses that I am sitting at a stop light, and hopefully responds with a quicker green. AI guides the GPS that gets me from one visit to the next through neighborhoods I do not know. I rely on AI from morning ‘til night, as I suspect many of you do. So is the next step, turning to AI for my sermons? The answer is NO. A sermon is more than just a lecture to teach a concept. A sermon is the witness of one who has been moved, shaped, changed, and saved by Jesus the Christ, in the hope that others will be moved, shaped, changed, and saved by Jesus the Christ. From one heart to another heart. That is the call of every Christian, whether from a pulpit or in a personal conversation, to share the story of the heart so that others will know the One who can touch their heart. AI’s life-less, heart-less reality cannot bear witness to the One who gives us life and changes our hearts.

Two of my favorite gospel hymns remind us of the call to share the good news of Jesus Christ, one heart to another. 
I love to tell the story of unseen things above
 Of Jesus and his glory; of Jesus and his love
 I love to tell the story, because I know ‘tis true;
 It satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
While an AI generated avatar can sing these songs on a screen, that avatar would be merely mouthing a life-saving truth that no avatar can know. But we can! This world needs to hear the witness of those who know the Savior, whose lives have been redeemed by the Savior, who know the love of the Savior. As you read this, I am with our Mission Team in Belize sharing that witness. Let’s start singing that old, old story of the One who has given us life!

With you, singing!

ps… Happy Juneteenth!
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