Written by Paul J Bucknell on June, 01, 2023
AI and the Future of the Christian Church - Part 1
A warning for the potentially harmful impact of artificial intelligence on Christian practices and ministry.
"How great is Your goodness, which You have stored up for those who fear You, which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You, before the sons of men!” (Psalm 31:19)
The Turning Point
Though we rely on God as our mighty Savior, our Refuge, the Christian’s allegiance, and trust will be severely tested in this coming age. We will be tested more and more on whether or not to rely on another promised technology—starting now.
We are at a pivotal time in history. The invention of the Gutenberg Press is a blip on the screen compared to the incredible impact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have, with its command of super-charged computers, self-teaching learning models, and developmental robots. A friend recently introduced me to ‘Annie’, a talking head for an AI talking module. You are encouraged to converse with ‘Annie’ as you would with a real person, like a new friend.
The impact of AI has grown exponentially since it was introduced to the public in January 2023 through Chat GPT. Many millions have already started toying with this new ‘friend,’ while others warn that AI introduces a threat to the present status of society. ChatGPT had over 100 million users in just two months. This is the highest adoption rate of any webpage or technology. AI and its accompanying technological advances threaten to replace God, providing many things we have always wanted, including power, knowledge, and possibly riches.
An amazing number of AI stories flood into the media daily, informing us on how AI will otherwise affect our future. (I specifically refer to ChatGPT, Open AI’s bot, but I will use bot to describe any of these similar AI self-learning models generically.) Stating that this advanced technology will change society is an understatement.
I’ll first provide some shocking daily headlines from April 2023 to ensure readers are familiar with bot’s advances. People can easily follow this thread in the media. It’s hard to escape!
- “ChatGPT passes exams from law and business schools”
- “ChatGPT revolution has driven half the gain in the stock market this year”
- “We Made a Mistake” by Elon Musk, a confounder of ChatGPT
- “Experimental Google AI ‘Bard’ talks faith in the first person”
- “How ChatGPT Will Destabilize White-Collar Work
This article’s main point is not to demonstrate how AI bots might generally affect the public but their potential influence on the Christian church. Already, bots are influencing homework, test-taking, court judgments, and development in literature, dramas, art, and videos. Its powerful and mesmerizing influence is already casting its shadow over the earth, promising endless knowledge, expectation, and wealth.
The Two Warnings
I’ll introduce two dangerous trends, the first more immediate and subtle (parts 1-2), while the second is an insidious, treacherous plan (part 3 is a coming article). They both reflect the spiritual conflict Christians face in this world.
1-2) Seduced by Bot’s Attraction
The first two articles, parts 1 and 2, describe how ChatGPT and similar bots will bring Christians under its influence. Its sway will threaten our dependence on God. (If you doubt it could happen, consider how quickly we have become addicted to our smartphones!) I’ll outline the possible steps this might follow.
3) Caught in the Devil’s Web
In a somewhat speculative way, a forthcoming article attempts to link Satan’s deeper purpose, as seen in the Bible, with the beguilement and manipulation of mankind through AI. The devil’s goal is to get the whole earth to worship him. Any dependence on him leads to entrapment and control, leading to false worship—though this phase might not be immediate.
The AI Revolution Begins
As we approach this revolution, it’s essential to prepare ourselves for its significant impact on the Christian church. How can we be those who “stays awake” (Rev 16:15)?
“Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk about naked and men will not see his shame?” (Rev 16:15)
“4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober” (1 Thes 5:4-6).
I’m all excited about technological advances. Technology is the backbone of my web ministry, but I still need to warn myself not to get caught off guard. ChatGPT had more than 1.6 billion visits in March 2023, just two months after its website became public! If these AI assistants or bots become a subtle underlying crutch to our comforts or survival, we will become dependent upon them.
Let us now contemplate the potential changes that could impact the Christian church. Indeed, being aware of AI’s presence and influence is crucial to staying alert. We need a firm faith and discernment beforehand to prepare us for any confusion or delusion that may arise in the future. The challenge is not to forbid contact with ChatGPT or its likes—which is increasingly impossible, but to erect carefully placed inner cautions and boundaries.
The Christian church is ill-prepared for our present era, let alone for a new, fast-coming one. Parents already admit they don’t know how to set reasonable limits for their children on screen time. The world is wholly unlike the one in which they were raised.
The average Christian is troubled with their place in the world, unable to see the way forward and searching for something to provide meaning. The world is cleverly reshaping self-perception, leaving the church miles behind. (AI’s rapid media entrance into the world somewhat influences people, making them more willing to use it indiscriminately.)
The AI bots enter the scene by leaping over the normal learning modes and specialize in providing answers. But beware the bots can start providing answers to questions through one’s conversation while subtly suggesting other exciting topics. By sympathetically restating their problem, people begin to consider the bot’s ability to provide helpful advice. It’s a process. The goal, however, from my vantage point is clear. Once Christians are submerged in virtual playgrounds and enticing discussions, Jesus Christ and the Gospel might sound ancient and irrelevant. (This is further explained in the second part. AI itself has no goals.)
Even now, many Christians are distracted, disarmed, and despairing. (I have other resources that teach how to have a vigorous faith in Christ.) With few being discipled, Christians become very vulnerable to other advice—especially if it’s free. People, including believers, wrongly assume they have sufficient discernment to handle their challenges.
Changes are coming. Are you ready for them? Where will you go for answers? Christians and Christian leaders need to prepare for this next era, as it will present answers to our most complex and personal questions. Can ChatGPT, this technological star, convince us to trust it….him, her? Let me propose a plausible pathway by which AI’s influence might engulf the church.
Stages of Acceptance
I’m speculating here. Christians might encounter a bot and be captivated by its entertaining yet helpful advice. Caution becomes further disarmed at each stage when there seems to be no danger, just help.
After discovering assistance in one area, trust naturally builds up. It’s like going from one room to the next. Trust is the welcoming doorway bridging the gap.
We will explore four stages of help: Part 1: Teacher, Advisor; Part 2: Counselor, and Trainer. The world will follow this general pattern too, but I will highlight how it specifically applies to the Christian world under the ‘Christian’ heading.
#1 The Teacher Stage
The bots can be excellent teachers, passing on valuable knowledge with little investment.
Many people are now experiencing their first introduction to ChatGPT, an OpenAI bot. At first, they are drawn to this Chat assistant by curiosity, but are delightfully surprised at how entertaining it can be. After all, we are trying to see how it responds to our questions and possible assignments. Unlike a human, you can ask whatever you like. No embarrassment. (I can imagine what young boys might ask!)
Search engines, like Google, merely gather links and terse introductions to articles for one’s perusal, but Chatbot (several new bots are in development) presents a summary, article, or more, from many resources depending upon the need and request. It can even be creative and make photos, videos, poems, and drawings.
At this teacher stage, AI can immediately, in seconds, indulge us with what we want to know and more—all in a comprehensive and presentable format. Already, Teacher AI astounds the masses. It’s truly incredible!
ChatGPT is being upgraded all the time. With a subscription fee, you can get even faster responses. No wonder teachers are alarmed about what this means for their students when doing homework!
Even though it may require some time, economic changes and downturns will accelerate the acceptance process. Down the road, most teachers will be replaced, and public school buildings will be refitted. The bot will personally teach each of your children right at their level.
Church people will be tempted to compare their pastor and teachers with a new-found Bible expert—AI Chat! The bot might know the Word of God better than your pastor. When churches get tight on finances and the parishioners find that they can get the same information in a shorter, more attractive format from Chat, the pastor’s congregation might dwindle, or he might be out of a job.
It’s easy for AIChat Teacher to impress us. I’m impressed. Someone asked AI Bard, Google’s version, to briefly summarize the New Testament. It quickly spun off: “The New Testament is the story of God’s love for humanity, which was revealed through Jesus Christ.” It’s incredible how these bots will rattle off answers to theological questions—that many believers can’t answer! Just as AI bots will challenge the existence of public schools, Christian schools and colleges will face competition—without the exorbitant cost. Instead of mastering the learning process, students will rely on the bot’s answer, significantly lessening the individual student’s discernment.
Although Christians know intuitively that a pastor does much more than pass on a weekly lesson, they are most familiar with the pastor as a teacher/preacher for one hour a week. Teacher Bot can cut that message down to a convenient 20-minutes!
#2 The Advisor Stage
Bot provides advice too. You might be surprised by what these bots will say to you as your advisor.
At the advisor level, the viewers have already begun to trust the bot to gather information and present it to them. We like the ease of retrieving all this new information. It’s free worldwide, so we all have an expert at our finger tips!
Moving from teacher to advisor is easy. Even if we begin with curiosity, there’s no cost and assumed privacy (this is yet unknown). No friends or peers are around to laugh at us when we ask for advice.
We can first experiment—for fun, of course—and see what it says! It’s easy to see how Chat will advise us. This is especially true in an age when people are searching for their true identity and meaning in life. Who can you trust? At least the bot seems to be on your side and knows so much!
Now, we all know that the bot is not a person; it’s a computer learning module, but since it can sift information at super speeds, its response imitates a human being—as if it has an opinion and can engage in conversation with you; bot becomes Bot.
The bot provides advice with great thoroughness, balance, and speed, offering different options with pros and cons if desired. Aren’t you interested in asking some of the questions you would otherwise be embarrassed to ask your friends? “What can I do if I don’t have any close friends?” “Should I move?” “I don’t know how … works. Can you explain it?”
Initially, your curiosity manifests as a stage of infatuation. (This reminds me of how the Serpent tempted Eve in the Garden.) The fun and excitement can quickly transition to a love affair. In my generation, we had the Ouija board. It was a yes and no game (dangerously involving the occult—one should refrain from use.) Our new advisor, however, goes far beyond the ‘yes and no’ answers, with all of the current research at its ‘fingertips.’
Bot sounds so personal as if it knows us. It can help us sort through life’s ups and downs: relationship with our parents, a jealous friend in a club, etc. It will advise us about the decisions that we face. Bot can help you find the best college and financial assistance. It has time for my questions, some of which I’ve never considered asking anyone. But I can now ask Bot.
With parents distracted by their work, fun, and worries, we can see teens readily telling others on social media what Bot told them! These ‘conversations’ will introduce a new storm of chatter feeds with friends, subtly building up more confidence in Bot.
The older generation, taken by surprise, more slowly asks advice questions, but they are curious too. “I don’t believe it, but let me see what it says for fun.” Surprisingly, I read, on a different level, that it even influences the stock market. JP Morgan says, “ChatGPT has driven half the gains in the stock market this year” or “predict stock moves from headlines.” Who would have thought that people would already begin leaning on Bot’s advice for investments and betting on sports games? Expert advice?
When speaking about advice, mature Christians rightly question the bot’s ethics. What standards does the bot go by? In a disarming way, you can ask Bot the very question on your mind, “What system of ethics do you go by?" This is interesting! If you have a logical mind, you can discover the Bot’s approach and limits. But even if it presents theologically accurate answers, will it give the same to others? Probably not. Neither does Bot have faith. It has no spirituality, but it can fool people by making it sound as if it does.
Can Bot predetermine what kind of answers you are looking for and satisfy all? If not now, can it in the near future? Will it? Pastors and Christian parents should not only wonder if Bot will provide biblical and godly advice but whether, over time, it will gradually present alternative viewpoints, slowly shaping the mind. (Chat can’t do this on its own, but the influence of others on the programming does present great danger.)
It appears parents will be too late to the game, seeing their young people already follow Chat’s advice and asking Chat their biggest personal or problematic questions.
- “I’m bored. What can I do?”
- “People don’t notice me. What steps can I take?”
- “What can I do to get more popular?”
Well, maybe they are not yet asking, but maybe tomorrow. Anyone with access to the internet and an email address can plug into Bot’s mind network.
When exposing our inner decisions to Chat, we reveal ourselves, and our soul’s wants, questions, and wonders. When Chat proves available and trustworthy, we become further committed to sharing other personal issues with Chat. With a CallAnnie app, you can speak and listen to Annie. It’s an avatar representing a bot at this point but good enough to keep one’s attention. Virtual headsets will soon make this more attractive and convincing.
What advice are Christians looking for today? Where do they go for such advice? Do they have any clue on how the Bible relates to their question? Probably not.
It seems impossible to keep our children away from Bot. Too many friends are or will shortly be using it; besides, they can access it on any device.
By finding such helpful advice for commonplace issues, we are ready for another stage. (Part 2 includes the Counselor and Trainer stage—still coming.)
Study Questions on AI and the Future of the Christian Church
- What is AI and these bots, say ChatGPT?
- How does the speed of these AI bots affect their adoption and caution?
- Do you know of churches or parents training their children to use bots? Please share.
- Do you agree that we cannot shut out AI’s coming influence? Explain.
- List the four stages of the slippery slope of adopting AI bots.
- Describe stage 1, Teacher, of the slippery AI slope.
- Describe stage 2, Advisor, of the slippery AI slope.