In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has become a buzzword in many industries, from healthcare to finance to retail. But what about the church? Is the church ready for AI, and if so, how might it be used?
Experimenting with AI in church content creation
While there has been some access to basic AI features available to churches for some time through services like Microsoft’s Power Apps Cognitive services, it’s only recently that the average church has gotten access to no-code AI use. I decided to run an experiment: could I leverage AI into a process in under a day that would have a significant return on investment? 🤔
I started with content creation via GPT-3 from OpenAI. While its chat experiment, ChatGPT, is all the rage right now, the most monumental change is that normies like you and I can use it as the back-end for our apps or automated workflows. So, I cobbled together a quick little workflow: fill out a form via Microsoft Forms that asks for a blog article topic and date to publish. From there Microsoft Flow would get responses from OpenAI to write a blog article and give it an appropriate title. It was all saved in a table that would allow for exporting to WordPress blogs.
The total cost per article? For short blog articles it was around two cents. I believe with a bit more training, some very fleshed out articles that would take talented journalists, copywriters, and graphic designers many hours and hundreds of dollars being completed for less than ten cents. 🤑 Realistically, if human in the loop (HIL) approaches are used, then higher quality content is possible for a value somewhere in the middle.
I’m not going to say AI is living up to full potential yet, there were a few areas that left something to be desired in my tests with it, but all said and done, it worked. A church could basically rapidly fill out their content calendar and automatically post content to their digital ministry using similar workflows to post to social media pages for a fraction of what it would cost the staff to do the same. Probably my biggest disappointment though is that digital art is not to the point where I could tell it to create an image that summarizes the article without it looking absolutely nonsensical… and yet the nonsensical outcomes weirdly felt a lot like the low-quality graphic design you would expect a church to put out in the weekly announcements, so AI appears to have determined a “Christian Church” art style that it is trying to emulate. 🤷
So, what can we expect AI to be capable of now and into the immediate future?
More efficient ministry engagement
One possible application for AI in the church is in the area of engagement. Many churches have struggled to keep up with the pace of technological change and find it difficult to reach younger generations. AI could potentially be used to help churches develop content that is more engaging to Gen-Z, Millennials, and Gen-X. This is particularly true in the area of writing things like website copy or social media posts.
Similarly, it can, as it stands, read and respond to other social media posts. It can even respond to emails. Using AI as an assistant could cut back on the time busy pastors need to spend on social media while still having a seemingly personal touch on social media.
Of course, this presents certain dangers, AI can’t make the transcendent leap, so it has no actual concept of “truth” per se. By default it will prefer to tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. It really shouldn’t be trusted for insightful exegetics at this point.
Church office intelligence
Another potential use for AI in the church is in the area of administration and organization. AI is pretty good at doing predictive modeling, so if you have good information in your Church Management System (ChMS), then it will be able to predict growth or decline as well as giving. Most importantly, it will start becoming better at detecting indicators that members are becoming disengaged from the church or that people have gotten stuck in their discipleship journey, allowing staff or volunteers to come alongside people who are struggling or need challenged.
Weekly attendance taking
Through the use of cameras, AI has the ability to identify and record when people visit the physical church. I don’t love the concept of using AI to go into full “big brother” mode on a congregation, but there are already some churches doing just that with surveillance systems that recognize their congregants. I would argue this isn’t a great use of AI as, ethics aside, weekly attendance really doesn’t say much about where someone is at in their discipleship journey. There’s a reason why Jesus would often leave the crowds behind or give crowds a harsh reality check that would cause them to leave: just showing up and listening isn’t enough and I don’t recommend spending on AI for attendance taking. 😱
Overall, it is clear that AI has the potential to bring significant benefits to the church, but it is also important for churches to carefully consider its use. As with any new technology, it is important for churches to approach AI with discernment, and to ensure that it is used in a way that aligns with the values and mission of the church.
I’ll be leveraging AI more thoroughly over the course of 2023 for the churches I work with. My hope is to be able to share more practical examples of its use throughout the year.