by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Monika Grafik from Pixabay

Did I even write this paragraph?  If you’re into tech developments, and you’ve been reading the recent articles about ChatGPT, you will already know that maybe I did and maybe I didn’t (I did in this case, but somewhere in this week’s blog will be a paragraph crafted by artificial intelligence).  If a personal digital assistant becomes so sophisticated and proficient that it’s practically indistinguishable from a human author, what are the implications for ministry?  What do the rapid fire iterations of the latest tech mean for how we do what we do, for good or ill?  That is, if we can even keep up.

ChatGPT is a web-based artificial intelligence tool developed by a San Francisco startup called OpenAI.  In practical terms for us non-techies, you type in a prompt, and the computer program (the chatbot) answers you in text form.  An Associated Press “explainer” article describes it like this: 

It’s part of a new generation of AI systems that can converse, generate readable text on demand and even produce novel images and video based on what they’ve learned from a vast database of digital books, online writings and other media.

But unlike previous iterations of so-called “large language models,” such as OpenAI’s GPT-3, launched in 2020, the ChatGPT tool is available for free to anyone with an internet connection and designed to be more user-friendly. It works like a written dialogue between the AI system and the person asking it questions.

Millions of people have played with it over the past month, using it to write silly poems or songs, to try to trick it into making mistakes, or for more practical purposes such as helping compose an email. All of those queries are also helping it get smarter.

So, it’s a digital assistant in that it will answer any question you ask it, like Google giving essay answers instead of lists of web addresses.  It really shines, though, in that it is an “intelligent” writing assistant, assimilating information from across the Internet and communicating it in workmanlike prose.  It can be fun and playful, too.  One of our party game activities at my Christmas family gathering was testing ChatGPT with whimsical challenges like “Explain the causes of WWII in the style of Dr. Seuss” or “Have Romeo write a break-up letter to Juliet.”  The responses were laugh inducing and often disturbingly good.  That was just for laughs though.  This evolving technology could ultimately prove beneficial to our daily work. 

ChatGPT can be a valuable tool for those working in ministry in several ways. One potential use is for creating personalized and automated responses to common questions or concerns that church members may have. This can save time for ministry staff and allow them to focus on more complex issues. Additionally, ChatGPT could be used to create engaging and interactive sermons or Bible studies. The model’s ability to generate creative and relevant content could help to make religious teachings more relatable and accessible to a wider audience. Furthermore, ChatGPT could be utilized for creating and sending automated messages for events or services, as well as for creating personal prayer or devotionals for individuals in need. Overall, ChatGPT’s ability to generate creative and personalized content can be a useful resource for those working in ministry to connect with their congregations and communities in new and innovative ways.

The points made in the previous paragraph are all true, but I didn’t write that paragraph 🙂  The chatbot did!  (One of the possibilities that has bloggers and copywriters nervously wringing their hands is that we could all be out of a job in a couple of years.  I simply went to the OpenAI website and typed in this prompt: “Write a paragraph about how ChatGPT might be used creatively by those working in ministry.”  The resulting answer is recorded faithfully in the paragraph preceding this one, and it’s a pretty good paragraph (both in terms of the content – the ‘bullet points’ of the answer are solid – and the formation and assemblage of the sentences themselves.  It’s not perfect, of course.  It can get facts wrong (and apparently frequently does) if we were asking a complex factual question, and the writing is correct but largely unimaginative.  It would be easy enough to suss out that the chatbot’s paragraph was not written by me if you were paying close attention: it lacks my usual snark, frequent proclivity for alliteration, and fondness for fancy pants diction choices like “proclivity.” 

But it gets the job done.  And getting the job done, considering the amount of everyday text that is generated by any local church ministry, might be a big time-saving, resource-reconfiguring help.  (And this tool has only been released to the wider world for about a month-and-a-half.  It’s only going to get better as more people around the world put it to the test and its creators continue to refine its capabilities.)

I expect that it will be a tool that will provide a useful framework for getting started on projects – everybody hates a blank page!  If you can prompt the chatbot to give you an initial ‘base model’ for a writing task, you will be able to build from there to personalize, customize, and creatively craft a finished product.  Just playing around with the software, I prompted it to write a letter of condolence to a congregation member, a thank you note for a donor to a fundraising campaign, and . . . a sermon based on the story of the Good Samaritan with at least two references from prominent theologians and one family friendly humorous story (the result being as unique as the corresponding details of the prompt).  The condolence letter and thank you note are perfectly serviceable as generated and being able to have such a starting place for such correspondence could be a great relief to ministry staff or volunteers who are intimidated by the writing process.

The sermon was basic, straightforward, and unadorned with creative touches, but it was not terrible — let’s be honest: I’ve heard worse.  It could be a starting place, a ‘prompt,’ to get a more creative, in-depth approach rolling.  (I will include it in full for your enjoyment at the conclusion of the blog.)

Ethicially speaking, having an artificial intelligence write your Sunday morning sermon is a terrible idea.  (The explainer article linked at the beginning of the blog is really about the massive connundrum the advent of this technology is creating for teachers.  I have already had my niece, a high school sophomore, report that peers are using it to produce homework essays.)  But as a tool it could be useful, both as a “break glass in case of emergency” option when somebody gets diagnosed with COVID, and you are forced to fill in.  Or more importantly as a composition crutch, it could be a technological gateway to expanded creativity.  I expanded on the ChatGPT Good Samaritan sermon by refining it with some further questions.  I asked it about Max Lacado’s take on the Good Samaritan theme, and it offered some excellent quotes.  I asked it for historical examples on the Good Samaritan theme, and it suggested the story of Raoul Wallenberg.  Not bad.  Just as I am grammar and spell check, as we all now do, as I compose this blog, we might all one day use these AI tools to do what we are already doing better and more efficiently.

As a tool for regular folk who are terrified about writing, it could lead to a huge reduction in anxiety.  I have already had a tech-savvy friend report that he had used it as a way to form is words into an articulate package that gave him confidence.  For him, for work emails, letters, reports, and even texts to friends, it could prove to be a lifeline.

This is a new breed of technology that may impact local ministry in unexpected ways.  I think of Google Translate as one such example.  In my local community, language barriers can be a common ministry occurrence, but it’s been uncanny to see church staff using the translation tool on their smartphones to carry on conversations with those in need of assistance.  Perhaps you have seen other fascinating iterations of technology applied compassionately and creatively.

What do you think about the inclusion of chatbots and other forms of artificial intelligence as part of our ministry tool kit?  How do you see ways that such technology might be applied for good?  What do you identify as dangers for including even more ‘stealth’ technology in our interactions with those we are called to serve?

And as a bonus: here’s that ChatGPT’s sermon:

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today we gather to reflect on the powerful message of the parable of the Good Samaritan, as told in the Gospel of Luke chapter 10. This story, in which a man is beaten and left for dead by the side of the road and it is a Samaritan, a despised outsider, who stops to help him, has become a symbol of compassion and charity for people of all backgrounds and faiths.

Theologians throughout history have offered their own interpretations of this story, but two in particular stand out. The first is Saint Augustine, who saw the Good Samaritan as a symbol of Christ himself, who came to save us even though we were strangers to him. Saint Augustine wrote, “The Lord wished to make known to us that we should love even our enemies, and that we should do good to those who hate us.”

The second theologian is Martin Luther who emphasized the idea of the neighbor as one’s self. He wrote “You should not seek to become a lawyer, a judge, a governor, or a prince, but to become a neighbor.” He argued that by loving one’s self we will learn to love others.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one that can be difficult for some of us to fully grasp, but I want to share with you a humorous and family-friendly illustration that might help us to understand it better. Imagine for a moment that you are at a baseball game, and you see a player from the opposing team get hit in the head with a ball. Now, imagine that instead of going to help him, the players on your team start jeering and throwing popcorn at him. That would be a pretty horrible thing to see, right? But now imagine that a player from the opposing team comes over to help him. That player would be like the Good Samaritan in our story, right? He’s someone that we might not expect to be kind, but he is.

In the same way, the Good Samaritan in Jesus’s story is not someone we might expect to be compassionate and loving. But he is, and that’s the point. The message of this story is that we are all called to be Good Samaritans, to love and help those in need, regardless of who they are or where they come from. This is the message that Jesus is trying to teach us. And it’s one that we must take to heart if we hope to follow in his footsteps.

Let us Pray: Dear Lord, help us to be Good Samaritans, to love and help those in need, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Amen.