At a fête for one of evangelicalism’s largest online media outfits, a colleague shared how he asked GPT-3, a language AI, what the Bible says about transgenderism. The AI produced a cogent theological explanation with Biblical citations. A senior editor for the media org responded portentously, “If AI can write that, I’m about to be permanently out of a job.”
Maybe he’s right. Machine learning is still in its infancy. By the end of this decade, language AIs will be able to write sermons, convincingly imitating the style of well-known preachers. Pastors may covertly save themselves hours of sermon prep by preaching AI-generated homilies in the style of Ben Stuart. 2030’s celebrity pastors may turn out to be Christian actors, putting physically attractive human flesh on artificial thought. John MacArthur’s successor is definitely going to be an AI, holographic John MacArthur. Churches lacking a dynamic speaker could use AI-powered AR glasses to resurrect Spurgeon. I bet he’d preach a real banger.
The church’s response to the first AI-pastor-plagiarism scandal (is it plagiarism, though?) is predictable. Critics will issue jeremiads with cobbled-together ethics and homespun wisdom harkening back to a past (our present) that cannot be reconstructed. But they will face an uphill battle. By that point most scholars will use AI research assistants, most executives will trust AI personal assistants, and most low-skill workers serve of AI managers. While nostalgia for 2022 may triumph for a time in the church, it will be eroded by the pervasive AI in human life.
This isn’t a proto-apologetic for allowing Alexa to lead the Sunday morning liturgy. It’s a short piece of science fiction designed to make you see how technology liquidates traditional forms of life. Jon Askonas writes, “Technological change has dissolved the contexts in which traditions once thrived. A technological society can have no traditions,” concluding that, “As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards.”
In the early 21st century, evangelicalism responded to the technological liquidation of tradition by fighting a series of pyrrhic battles.
A single example illustrates the point: we treated Facebook as a novelty to be ignored. Our assessment seemed justified for 17 years, until we learned — thanks to the MIT Technology Review — that foreign troll farms were filling the void we created. During the mid to late 2010s, foreign troll farms created and operated 19 of the top 20 Christian Facebook pages, using them spread disinformation to over one-hundred million Facebookified Christians.
The rise of QAnon, vaccine conspiracies, Christian Nationalism, the deconstruction phenomenon, and polarization in churches was the result of our refusal to account for how the social internet triumphed over traditional forms of disciple making in the late 20th century: worship, sermons, small groups, radio ministries, coffee dates, classes, megachurches, Bible studies, and potlucks.
American Christianity is at a key juncture in its history because of the existential threat created by information technology. The key question is how will we orient ourselves toward technology?
Some will argue that the solution to technological problems present and future is a churchwide retreat to the pre-smartphone era. This approach takes disparate forms. Retrieve Benedictine practices and bunker down while the pagans reign. Kill the Livestream for exclusively in-person worship. Cryogenically freeze the church’s culture in the early 2000s. Viva la Seeker Sensitivity!
The options are endless — and few people will perfectly match the idealized anti-technologist I describe — but they all share a common thread: viewing digital technology as a fundamentally deformative enemy whose very existence requires the mobilization of Christian troops for a long war of attrition.
But there is another option.
“Science and technology are natural allies to this Judeo-Western optimism,” writes Peter Thiel in First Things, “especially if we remain open to an eschatological frame in which God works through us in building the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earth — in which the kingdom of heaven is both a future reality and something partially achievable in the present.”
Thiel’s thought is rooted in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1-2 and the eschatological prayer of Jesus, “Your kingdom come … on earth as in heaven.”
Yet, he does not forget Genesis 3. Unlike the techno-utopians, Thiel leaves space for human sin, frailty, and failure. The kingdom is only “partially achievable in the present.” Put differently: technology cannot inaugurate the kingdom, but it need not be an existential threat. To the contrary, torchbearers of Christian tradition can regenerate their institutions by learning to sing the old songs in a new key. This includes not only adaptation to new technological realities, but also the instrumentalization of its nascent potential unto the common good.
A concrete example may best illustrate the point. Recent polling suggests that the U.S. is undergoing one of the largest religious shifts in its history. But for the first time, it’s a large shift away from the church. The de-churching phenomenon is at least partially the result of technological liquidation.
Some churches will take up a Sisyphean cause, doubling down on technological disengagement. (If technology is the problem, then it can’t be part of the solution). Our church is taking a different approach. As the world continues to adapt to AI — neural networks of computers crunching data — we believe that data and data collection will increasingly become the key for passing on “the deposit of the gospel” to future generations.
At the moment, we collect data by creating content that specifically appeals to de-churched people. To gain access they must share small amounts of data (name and email address).
We track the data we receive to determine how many of those online contacts become in-person attendees at our church. Over the last four years, 10% of the de-churched contacts we gather began attending in-person worship. We then used the data we gathered to create look-a-like audiences on Meta in order to reach increasing numbers of de-churched people — making our efforts more successful year over year. In 2019 we collected around 300 new contacts, in 2020 around 1000, in 2021 around 3,000, and in 2022 we will reach around 9,000 de-churched individuals. Thus, we’ve used technology to integrate almost 1,000 people into embodied church communities in a city of only 125,000 people.
While a single example cannot prove the point, I hope it at least plants a seed of doubt in the minds of those who find Askonas’ optimism about institutional regeneration through technology suspicious. Perhaps AI is a poor substitute for some pastoral duties, but we may find it a tremendous help in certain areas. Our orientation toward technology must not overemphasize Genesis 3. Likewise, it must not build castles in the sky, hoping for a repeat of Genesis 10. Instead, we must embrace the cultural mandate and Christ’s promise to work through the church as it seeks to be faithful in each generation.
Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.