While the attendees seemed to appreciate the novelty of the technology, the consensus was that preaching still requires a human touch.
A German Protestant community has tested the breadth of the abilities of artificial intelligence, going so far as to hold a Lutheran service that was almost completely “written” by AI. The service, which gathered some 300 people to St. Paul’s church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth, reportedly lasted for 40 minutes, and engaged the congregation with prayers, music, and even a sermon, all of which were generated through the ChatGPT program.
According to the Associated Press, the biennial convention called the German Evangelical Church Congress touched upon several current world issues, including climate change, the war in Ukraine, and artificial intelligence. The service run by the chatbot program stood as a demonstration of the AI’s abilities, as well as a litmus test for how a congregation might respond to an AI-written church service.
The AI-led service was the idea of Jonas Simmerlein, a 29-year-old theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna. He estimated that around 98% of the service was written by “the machine.” He noted that it was not his intention to propose that AI could replace a preacher, but that it could be a way to help free up some time and make some of the day-to-day work easier.
“Artificial intelligence will increasingly take over our lives, in all its facets,” Simmerlein said. “And that’s why it’s useful to learn to deal with it.”
The above footage of the event shows that the AI represented itself through several different avatars, including a female who seemed to lead the prayers, and a male who gave the sermon. (Note that while the journalist in the video above refers to the service as a Mass, Protestants do not celebrate Masses.)
The voices were reportedly monotonous and the facial expressions were neutral, with some attendees noting that it spoke a little too fast at times. The sermon it gave followed the convention’s theme of “Now is the time,” speaking of leaving behind the past, contending with the present, overcoming fear of death, and placing trust in Jesus Christ.
Attendees reportedly had mixed reactions to the service, with most of the reported opinions ranging from negative to underwhelmed. Heiderose Schmidt, a 54-year-old who works in IT, said she attended the event out of curiosity, but was put off by the lack of a “heart and soul,” in the AI preacher, as well as the monotone voice.
Thirty-one-year-old Lutheran pastor Marc Jansen was more impressed with how well the AI was able to arrange a church service, but even he noted that there were times when the ride was a bit “bumpy.” He said he was surprised by how well it went, but he also lamented the lack of emotion or spirituality, which he considers pivotal to his own writings.
The greatest limitation that was observed was the inability for the AI to interact with the flock. There were moments when it was even able to draw laughter from the crowd, but it was unable to respond or acknowledge the moment. It seems that much of the consensus was that AI could indeed be used as a tool to help preachers free up their time, but the celebration of a religious service still requires a human touch.