When I (Alison) first heard of ChatGPT it took me all of two minutes to pull up the site and enter in the request “Write me a sermon on the parable of the lost sheep.” As a preacher, how could I not? In response to my prompt, a cursor appeared. And then text. A sermon, laid out in a flash. Without a single commentary plonked on my desk. Without the anguish of days figuring out my central idea. Without the sparks of inspiration for which I usually beg God. Without … me.
I wondered, What did this mean? Does preaching not need preachers anymore? Will ChatGPT replace us?
ChatGPT, if you aren’t familiar with it yet, is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool that allows the user to have conversations with, or to have documents written by, a chatbot. People have used ChatGPT so far to write essays, emails, resumes, poetry, song lyrics, computer code—even to pass the bar exam.
Perhaps you’ve had the chance to play with ChatGPT too. Perhaps you asked it to write a sermon on the text the Lectionary has set for Sunday. What was that sermon like? The ChatGPT sermons we’ve seen thus far have been biblical, organized, and clear. Which leaves us with the question: Could the work of preachers be replaced by a machine?
How ChatGPT Works
If we’re going to answer that, first we need to understand how the machine works. What it’s capable of. That’s why we chose to write this article together: Alison, a preacher and PhD student in the field of homiletics, and Jonathan, a data scientist, working in the field that constructed ChatGPT.
As little as we know about the actual architecture of ChatGPT, I (Jonathan), can tell you that it gathers its resources—it trains on data—from the past. When we ask ChatGPT a question, it answers those questions by considering “Which recombination of words from the past best answers that question?” Or, more specifically, “How can past thoughts and sentences be structured into something useful here?”
Imagine there is a a huge ocean of data/text from the generations of wise and unwise human words on the web. AI models use neural nets like a thousand little straws to suck out drops of the ocean, broadly speaking, and write a useful answer.
Still, there are limitations with this model. These straws in the ocean? They are only accessing things that have come before. ChatGPT has no data from the future. This flaw is the reason why ChatGPT cannot ever replace, at least some kinds of, preaching.
It can’t Replace Prophetic Preaching
Unlike ChatGPT, Christians do have a sense of our future. And we know the world has a future, too. A future that challenges us where we are. I (Jonathan) describe it as a red-hot thread that is drawn all the way from the future to now. Prophetic preaching, by which we mean preaching that is not future-telling but future-oriented, is preaching influenced by this red-hot thread.
There are preachers who have stood in the pulpits of history who were able to imagine that thread for our nation, or even our world. They were able to do what John McClure said prophetic preaching does—imaginatively reappropriate our old Christian stories and symbols “for the purpose of critiquing a dangerous and unjust present situation and providing an alternative vision of God’s future” (Preaching Words, 117).
ChatGPT is able to recall old stories and symbols. It can even remind us of facts about our future from the Book of Revelation or Mark 13. But ChatGPT cannot “imaginatively reappropriate.” It cannot “provide alterative visions.” It can only draw from the textual data of the past. It cannot hope, cannot imagine, cannot dream.
Could ChatGPT be Desmond Tutu, or Martin Luther King, or Sojourner Truth? No. ChatGPT cannot preach change unless that change has already been preached. If ChatGPT was released before the abolition of slavery, before the civil rights movement, or before the end of apartheid, it would preach racism and segregation. Our world would be utterly impoverished by such a machine.
But this begs the question: What then can ChatGPT not imagine today?
It can’t Replace Creative Preaching
There have been moments in the history of preaching where preachers have brought forth something fresh. Romanos the Melode turned sermons into poetic ballads, George Whitefield discovered the power of an everyday person illustration, Fred Craddock trained preachers to preach inductively. Sure, there was plenty of “old” in what these preachers were doing. But there was also something new.
If you have played around with ChatGPT long enough, you’ll begin to see there are certain forms ChatGPT understands a sermon can take. We can ask the program to write “in the style of Joel Osteen” or “in the style of Spurgeon,” but we can’t ask ChatGPT to write a sermon in a style, or using a technique, of which preachers are yet to even dream.
Still, does preaching need to be creative? Does it really matter if we keep using forms and content that have come before?
In the eight century, Emperor Charlemagne oversaw the construction of a preaching homiliary, a book of preaching material sent out across the Roman empire, from which priests were to construct their weekly sermons. An ancient “ocean of textual data,” if you will. Preaching historians like Hughes Oliphant Old and John Ker refer to the 200 years that followed as the lowest point in the history of Western preaching. Reusing the same material week in and week out, preaching ossified. Preaching was so dull that soon enough, the empire was issuing decrees that parishioners must not leave the church before the sermon was finished!
You might never write a world-shatteringly creative sermon, and I (Alison) might not either. But I certainly hope that someone in the church does. Creativity feeds life into the work of preaching. It makes sure that the styles and forms and language that preaching takes are relevant to our time. And ChatGPT, training on what has come before, can’t do any of that.
It can’t Replace Prayer-Soaked Preaching
Would you let someone preach in your church who wrote sermons but had never prayed? That is what ChatGPT is—a sermon writer who has never, ever prayed.
We don’t talk about this nearly enough in our classrooms or textbooks, but preaching needs prayer. The disciples knew it. In Acts 6:4 they sought to devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” Have you ever thought about why these preaching disciples devoted themselves to both the word and prayer?
Some argue preaching can’t even exist without prayer. Luke Powery in Ways of the Word argues that prayer is a prerequisite for preaching. “Preachers will dig their own homiletical grave,” Powery writes, “if they are more interested in ‘taking a text’ before taking the time to pray” (Ways of the Word, 68).
Yet “take a text” is all ChatGPT can do. But not you. You can pray. You can get down on your knees and ask the Lord for a word for this Sunday. You can sink your drinking straw, not only into a great ocean of old text, but into God h imself. In your prayer closet you can receive future daily bread for your people through the intimate personal connection you have with God.
None of this is possible for ChatGPT. Sure, God can use the sermons manufactured by this program—God can use anything! But here’s the difference, ChatGPT by itself cannot seek God for a word for his people. ChatGPT can interact with more commentaries than we ever can, but only human preachers can receive a future word from God.
We know that this topic raises many more questions—more than we can answer here. We also know that talking about AI can be scary. What’s particularly scary is that there are some ways that machines do outperform humans. Some ways that ChatGPT might even be able to outperform human preachers.
If our preaching is only about repackaging old material, ChatGPT will win in the long run. If our sermons are merely line-by-line explanations of the meaning of the text, ChatGPT can gather that information easily enough. If our preaching listens only to commentaries, ChatGPT will do that more efficiently than we ever could.
It’s possible that such efficiency could help you, could help the local preacher. Technological advances can help us. Think of the printing press, that sent the Word of God into millions of homes. ChatGPT could help expedite your work of information gathering, commentary reading, and writing explanations of texts.
But is that all preaching should be? Information gathering and explaining? Is that all that preaching is? Russell Moore’s recent CT article on ChatGPT asked this too: “The question is about what preaching actually is.” (Russell Moore, “AI Might Teach, But It Can’t Preach”) Our humble proposal is this: There is a critical subset of preaching that has a future in mind.
ChatGPT can only search and assemble from what has come before. ChatGPT has no future in mind. Yet whether it be prophetic preaching, or creative preaching, or prayerful preaching—there is preaching that has a future in mind. Therefore faithful, future-oriented preachers, if this is your preaching ministry take heart, ChatGPT has no future in your pulpit.
Alison Gerber is the former pastor of Second Congregational Church in Peabody MA, now a PhD in Preaching student at Truett Seminary/Baylor University in Waco TX.