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AI and Sermon Prep

7 suggestions for integrating Artificial Intelligence into the preacher’s study.
AI and Sermon Prep
Image: MR.Cole_Photographer / Getty Images

We may look on our time as the moment civilization was transformed, as it was by agriculture, fire, and electricity. In 2023 we learned that a machine taught itself how to speak to humans like a peer, which is to say, with creativity, truth, error, and lies. The technology, known as a chatbot, is only one of the recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence—machines that can teach themselves superhuman skills.

--Scott Pelley, 60 Minutes, April 16, 2023

With that opening monologue and in the following thirty-minute report, viewers of television’s longest continually running primetime series were transported through the looking glass. As a preacher and teacher of preaching, I watched in stunned silence. The world shifted beneath my feet. I wondered how long it would be before earth’s plates finally settled again.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is nothing new. Research into the field began in 1956 on the campus of Dartmouth College. The following decades witnessed little progress. Federal and private funding were granted then withdrawn repeatedly. Come the dawn of the twenty-first century, massive amounts of collected data, cheaper and faster computers, and advanced machine learning techniques fueled the growth of AI research and the production of AI tools.

OpenAI publicly launched ChatGPT in November 2022 (Already over a year ago!!). Similar AI chatbots were released soon after. Early experimenters immediately intuited how potent and problematic the new technology could be for numerous professions. Creators of original content and knowledge workers would be among the first to be impacted. Preachers fall squarely within both camps.

AI is no more likely to go away than agriculture, fire, or electricity. Like those transformational discoveries, AI introduces new potential and dangers into our world—including the preacher’s study.

Since viewing Scott Pelley’s report, I have done some research, experimented with ChatGPT, discussed my findings with friends and colleagues, and tried to think through how I might integrate this tool into my own study and how I should direct others who are new to this technology. The following suggestions are intentionally general. Ongoing developments in the field will dictate that specific guidelines be formulated as warranted.

Appreciate the Technology

Chatbots use a deep learning algorithm trained on a vast database drawn from the internet, books, and other sources. By identifying patterns in the data, they can generate text resembling human speech. Unlike Google and other internet search engines, programs like ChatGPT create content instead of merely retrieving it.

Chatbots are aptly named. They allow users to converse with AI just as they would another person. Instead of posing a question, receiving an answer, then having to reword that answer in the form of another question ad nauseam to get the desired result, users can engage the bot in a back-and-forth dialogue.

Suppose you develop a sermon outline but want to improve its wording. You can give the bot your outline and ask for a better one. Not satisfied? Tell it to try again (and again, and again). Want it alliterated? No problem. Just say, “Alliterate that.” How about a statistic to go along with your second point? The bot will be happy to suggest or fetch one. The technology’s capabilities are truly remarkable.

Consider the Theological Implications

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention released its “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles” in April 2019. A year later, project leader Jason Thacker released his own book The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity. Similar titles have appeared on bookshelves since.

Central to all discussion of AI within a biblical framework is the nature of humans as God’s image bearers. From that point can be considered questions pertaining to how AI will affect work, privacy, sexuality, and so forth.

Prior to AI, everyone would have agreed that mankind is greater than the machines. Today, critics wonder whether AI will be humanity’s greatest and last invention. Will the day come when machines build their own machines? Will they eventually displace humanity in the universe’s hierarchy? No, not in God’s eyes, for humans are the only part of creation that bears God’s image. What is it then that makes artificial intelligence less than biological intelligence? What makes a chatbot’s sermon inferior to one produced by an actual preacher? Hershael York answers, “It lacks a soul—I don’t know how else to say it.” Nothing more needs to be said, but there is plenty here for a preacher to address.

Our hearers are not deaf to AI’s voice. The youngest among them may already be completing their homework with the help of a chatbot. Those in the workforce are being trained on the integration of AI into their daily routines. Many of them secretly worry that a bot will soon replace them. Anyone who has ever watched a Terminator movie is probably afraid on some level.

Preachers need to consider the theological implications of AI not only for themselves and their sermons but for their hearers as well. Those who have not already preached a series on the doctrine of anthropology in response to the ongoing gender debate should certainly do so now at the dawn of the age of AI.

Remember what Preaching Is

Sermons are artifacts of preaching. They are the goods delivered and remembered. Preaching is the delivery. It takes place in the moment as preachers address their hearers. Preaching is an embodied, existential act of eternal consequence.

Haddon Robinson defined biblical preaching as “the communication of a biblical concept … which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher applies to the hearers.” A century earlier, Phillips Brooks defined it in his Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching as “truth through personality.” In between, Bishop William Quayle rejected standard definitions of homiletics when he asked, “Preaching is the art of making a sermon and delivering it? Why, no, that is not preaching. Preaching is the art of making a preacher and delivering that!”

If these men were alive today, they would undoubtedly insist that preaching is not merely information disseminated by a machine to machines but full-bodied communication of truth from one bearing God’s image to God’s image-bearers. Machines may assist preachers in that process, but they cannot replace them.

In Paul’s day, the most modern communication technologies were parchment, papyrus, and lead ink. He used them all. Yet, it’s revealing that in Romans 10:15 Paul chose to reach back seven hundred years to quote Isaiah 52:7 in praising the feet, not the stylus, of those who deliver the gospel of peace.

Paul wrote to individual Christians and congregations far and wide but braved the brutal conditions of first century travel because he believed in the power of personal presence. His motivation, as he explained to the church at Rome, was that “I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom. 1:11-12, ESV). Paul realized that preaching in person was as good for him as it was for his audience.

On a recent evening’s walk, I pondered whether the world would be any worse off if I had never answered God’s call to preach. It immediately occurred to me that the world might not be any worse off but I would be. Pursuing the preaching life has shaped me in ways that no other vocation could. I do not simply preach; I am a preacher. When I deliver a sermon, I am delivering truth as it has been filtered through my personality, training, hopes, fears, and experiences—in short, my very soul.

That said, we must beware of correlating “soul talk” with a particular neurological type. Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Autism Research Center. He posits that all humans have both a Systemizing Mechanism (SM) and Empathy Circuit (EC) in their brains.

The SM appreciates order; seeks out patterns, the rules by which systems operate; and drives invention. The EC decodes the thoughts and feelings of other people, helps us to think about our own thoughts and feelings, and informs how we react to others emotionally.

Baron-Cohen identifies five types of brains on a neurodiversity scale, ranging from extreme empathizer to extreme systemizer. Only a combined 10% fall on either end of the spectrum. The rest divide evenly between the two poles, as people possessing empathizing, balanced, or systemizing brain types.

Non-autistic preachers fall somewhere within the 90%. Those who skew towards the systemizing end of the spectrum will naturally sound less empathic in their preaching than those who skew towards the other end. This may result in their sermons sounding impersonal or artificial. That does not make them lesser preachers than their more empathic counterparts. They sound different only because truth is being poured through their more systemic souls. They are not less human because they sound more robotic. The preacher’s humanity is in his/her imago Dei, not his/her brain type.

Pray and Study

The Jerusalem church first appointed deacons so that its preachers might devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). These duties remain the preacher’s highest priorities—attending to God and to those in need of him. Jesus is the Word incarnate. To minister the Word is to serve Jesus and to serve as Jesus. It is a high calling that requires divine intervention. The Spirit alone can convict hearers of their sin, God’s righteousness, and of judgment to come (John 16:8).

AI promises to slash time spent in sermon preparation by hours if not days, freeing preachers to devote more of their week to visitation and administration. But isn’t that precisely what the first deacons were appointed to do? If the time saved by using AI in sermon preparation is spent doing deacons’ work, the modern church becomes a little less biblical.

If anything, AI should free the preacher to spend more time in prayer and study. In fact, AI usage requires it. How does a preacher know what to preach except by seeking the Spirit’s direction? Sermon ideas can come from anywhere—daily Bible study, personal conversations, social media, or AI—but only God can tell us what our hearers need. While brainstorming with a chatbot, preachers must beware of cutting the Holy Spirit out of the discussion.

Just as the Spirit serves as guide in checking ideas, study serves as guard in validating them. AI does not remove the need to develop a biblical worldview, sound hermeneutical skills, an orthodox theology, acquaintance with homiletical principles, and all the other types of learning necessary to rightly divide the Word. Study shapes the preacher’s mind, informs their perceptions, and influences their choices.

While a chatbot can suggest ideas, the Spirit-led, study-informed preacher must remain the final arbiter of what is preached. It will be the preacher, not the AI, who will one day be judged for every word spoken (Jam. 3:1).

Treat AI as a Collaborator

Preaching teams are nothing new. Multi-staff churches practically expect them. Many of the same principles that apply to preaching teams also apply in the use of chatbots. Depending on the capabilities and cultures of a preaching team’s members, both they and AI can be used to:

  • Brainstorm topics and passages.
  • Provide researched answers.
  • Compile a list of commentaries.
  • Gather online sermons based on a chosen text.
  • Offer a different perspective.
  • Reimagine what you have developed.
  • Polish your outline.
  • Suggest illustrations and applications.
  • Translate your work into other languages.

The key to good results is the quality of the question. The better your question, the more likely you will receive the answer you want. That said, a chatbot can begin offering helpful ideas with the most general of requests. “Give me some ideas for a six-week sermon series on hope,” for example, is more than enough to get the conversation started.

Interestingly, not all chatbots give the same answers to the exact same questions. Each one’s programming, training, and overall design will determine the range and quality of responses it offers. In this way, chatbots may be said to have a personality or, better yet, reflect the personalities of their creators.

Preaching teams are no different. The range and quality of their output is determined by their members’ unique and collective personalities. However, unlike the people comprising a preaching team, chatbots can be traded out easily. If one isn’t providing the desired results, chat with another.

Confirm Everything

Beware! Chatbots “hallucinate.” That’s the term used to describe those instances when they offer convincing but completely made-up answers. Why do they do it? Encoding is sometimes responsible. At others, who knows? Should we find that troubling? Yes and no.

We expect our machines to provide reliable service, whether it’s the garbage disposal or garage door remote. We want nothing less from our smart devices. If the contraption is supposed to provide reliable information, it’s reliable information that we expect.

On the other hand, we know that machines fail. Why should we imagine it would be otherwise in a fallen world inhabited by fallen creatures who produce fallible tools? Humans err, lie, and, yes, hallucinate. We should not be surprised when our creations follow suit.

AI hallucinations make prayer, study, and the discernment that they produce essential. Preachers should take nothing for granted when collaborating with a chatbot. Ask it for references. Google the response or, heaven forbid(!), look it up in a book.

Why bother? Truth! Preachers are in the truth-telling business. We destroy our credibility when our hearers do the research and realize that we gave them something truthy-sounding but not the truth itself. We injure not only our reputations but potentially ruin people’s souls, not to mention what we do to our standing before God on judgment day. The smarter our technology becomes, the more, not less, crucial it will be to confirm everything.

Be Transparent

Wilson Mizner said, “When you take stuff from one writer it's plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.” But what do you call it when you take stuff from a chatbot?

Chatbots craft their answers by drawing from a wide array of sources. To say, “This morning’s outline comes from an AI chatbot,” would be sort of like saying it “comes from a list of innumerable resources mixed together then reassembled and edited by a third-party under my watchful eye and continual direction.” Is that sort of disclosure necessary?

One might argue that it is not. Today’s preacher already uses a wide array of high-tech tools in assembling a sermon. Online sites provide the tools to parse verbs and locate nouns in Hebrew or Greek in mere seconds. Bible study software contains numerous resources keyed to every passage of Scripture. Just point and click. Internet search engines offer a world of information with just a few keystrokes or voice commands. What makes a chatbot any different?

Well, here’s the thing. It is different. Chatbots are based on earlier technologies, but they are not the same. Five minutes spent watching someone engage a chatbot is enough to convince anybody that we have crossed a threshold. Until that form of AI and others to come are commonplace, some type of disclaimer should be offered. In fact, there may well come a time when AI usage is so widespread that people will be expected to disclose when they did not engage with it in the production of their works.

Presently, it should be enough for a preacher to announce, “In addition to prayer and personal study, I use many tools when crafting my sermons. Artificial intelligence in the form of a chatbot is the newest addition to my toolbox. I am still learning how to use this technology in my quest to rightly divide God’s Word to the best of my ability. Join with me in prayer that I may be a responsible steward of this new tool as I seek to shepherd you well.”

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Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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