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AI comes to church

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WORLD Radio - AI comes to church

Christian developers seek to harness AI for good but concerns remain


Joe Suh, right, attending AI and the Church Hackathon in October. Photo courtesy of Gloo

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday the 30th of November, 2023. This is WORLD Radio. Thanks for listening! Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up on The World and Everything in It: Artificial intelligence comes to church.

Earlier this month, the Christian research firm, the Barna Group conducted a survey asking Christians about AI. They found that roughly two out of ten respondents agreed that AI is good for the church. And more than five out of ten thought AI is not good for the church.

BROWN: A similar survey from August found that only 9% of Christian leaders think the church should leverage AI for good.

That survey was conducted by the faith-oriented tech platform known as Gloo, g-l-o-o. Last month, the organization brought together a group of Christian software engineers to develop AI tools and guardrails for the church.

REICHARD: Will their efforts mitigate concerns over AI? Our Producer, Harrison Watters, has the story.

HARRISON WATTERS, REPORTER: Joe Suh was a Silicon Valley engineer and entrepreneur when he began attending Menlo Church in 2018.

JOE SUH: There's a few thousand congregants and it's very hard to get time, one on one time, with a pastor.

Suh was coming out of a spiritually dry season, and he had all kinds of questions about the Christian life he wanted to ask then senior pastor, John Ortberg.

SUH: And I thought it would be really cool if I can take in a pastor's entire sermon library, and be able to ask questions through a chatbot. And so that's what I did. That's what I built.

What started out as a research project turned into a company called Pastors.AI. But early on, Suh found that pastors didn’t trust the chatbot to answer spiritual questions on their behalf with words they didn’t actually say from the pulpit. He soon realized that the issue came down to the “temperature” or level of creativity of the A-I model.

SUH: And at first, we had the default temperature of 50%, which is basically okay, take this text and form a response from it, but we're allowing you to be 50% creative.

But 50% creativity with a pastor’s sermons can result in “hallucination.” That’s when the chatbot simply makes stuff up.

SUH: And so we dialed that temperature down to zero, basically 0%. We're telling GPT to not be creative. Just take the sermon transcript and form a response from it.

Joe Suh’s current pastor at Menlo Church is Phil EuBank. He’s seen firsthand the benefits Pastors.AI has provided for members at his church—to be able to ask any question at any time of day, and get a biblical answer.

PHIL EUBANK: The fact that they can do that without having to sort of raise their hand and say, “This is me and I'm having this struggle, or I'm having this question,” it makes it so that hopefully somebody that's been in church for a long time, but still has a basic question, they have more than Google to try and chase to get that answer.

Suh and other Christian web developers recently met in Boulder, Colorado for Gloo’s AI and the Church Hackathon. Those developers see wider potential for what they call Christian GPT to provide a trustworthy alternative to large language models like ChatGPT.

CHASE CAPPO: The church has to be there and shine light in that digitally dark space, or the darkness will rule.

Chase Cappo is co-founder of BibleChat.AI, a program designed to reach young people around the world who are asking tough questions about God, sexuality, trauma, and life itself. Because BibleChat has been trained on the Bible and other good theological sources, the responses it gives are less prone to hallucination than secular models. It is also programmed to direct users towards scripture and fellowship in the church.

CAPPO: People are getting more personal faster with our anonymous Christian AI than they are doing with most ministers. And so it's worth saying, our AI just may know the Scriptures better than the pastor. And it's better trained in empathy or providing verbal empathy. Now, I'm not saying it's a replacement. It's a substitute to get someone to a person.

But even the idea of substituting a chatbot for a person worries some Christian leaders, who see spiritual growth as a relational reality.

JEREMY PIERRE: I can see where opening up to a chatbot might be a helpful initial step.

Jeremy Pierre is a biblical counselor and Dean of the Billy Graham School at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

PIERRE: But I know my own heart and I know how technology works enough to say, oftentimes, that's going to be a competition with the real difficult task of going and seeking help with someone.

Pierre draws a distinction between chatbots and people, who are made in the image of God. And, as Galatians 6:2 says, it is the responsibility of Christians to bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.

Pierre concedes that AI tools may be able to help Christians pursue the mission of glorifying God through evangelism and discipleship, but some significant limitations remain:

PIERRE: Answers to my individual questions on my singular screen are not going to necessarily contribute to that collective whole of living communally, and modeling righteousness and love towards one another. Now, it can be a tool for that, but we have to design our tools for that purpose, because that’s the central purpose of the church.

Tony Reinke is the Director of Communications at Desiring God and the author of God, Technology, and the Christian Life. He affirms the goodness of Christians creating tools like AI chatbots, but cautions against using those tools for pursuing spiritual growth.

TONY REINKE: What are we teaching people with AI? Are we teaching people who need help to turn to their Heavenly Father, or simply to open a new chat box dialog for a quick answer and quick fix? That simply does not authentically represent the pace of spiritual formation in God’s economy, which is measured in very long agricultural scales of slowly unfolding seasons.

Back in California, Joe Suh agrees that for Christians in the local church, spiritual growth won’t come through AI tools alone.

SUH: Because if someone is using a chatbot, to just chat with their AI pastor, and not be in fellowship, not be in community, not be in church, it's not going to fulfill their spiritual needs.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Harrison Watters.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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