AI ‘pastor’ leaves churchgoers surprised but uninspired

It seems attendees had a lot of thoughts about AI leading them in prayer.
Wooden church pews with prayer books on them
ChatGPT penned a 40-minute service for congregants during a Protestant conference in Germany. Deposit Photos

The reviews are in for a recent, AI-led church service in Germany—and the spiritual takeaways are mixed, to say the least.

According to a recap from The Associated Press on Friday, a ChatGPT bot embodied by multiple on-screen avatars oversaw a 40-minute devotional for over 300 congregants at St. Paul’s church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth. The experimental service—featuring music, prayers, and an AI-generated sermon—took place as part of Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, a biennial Protestant convention in Germany whose theme this year, aptly enough, was entitled “Now is the time.”

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Overseen by Jonas Simmerlein, a 29-year-old theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna, ChatGPT produced its religious program following a relatively simple prompt. “I told the artificial intelligence ‘We are at the church congress, you are a preacher… what would a church service look like?’” Simmerlein explained, estimating that approximately 98 percent of the entire service “comes from the machine.”

Although Simmerlein believes ChatGPT concocted “a pretty solid church service,” others were left spiritually unfulfilled. One attendee complained the experience possessed “no heart and no soul,” and found it difficult to concentrate because of the AI avatar’s fast, monotonous delivery. The AP also reports that some congregants even refused to audibly recite The Lord’s Prayer after being prompted by the AI “pastor.” Others, meanwhile, conceded they were “positively surprised” by the AI’s abilities and sermon, but echoed that the overall experience felt hollow.

The overall critique, perhaps unsurprisingly, stems from AI’s lack of humanity. Despite what some observers may argue to the contrary, artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT or Google Bard are not sentient—what’s more, they are arguably far from such a concept. Simmerlain agreed with congregants’ feedback, comparing the limits of AI to actual human pastors who live alongside, empathize, love, and grieve with their communities.

[Related: No, the AI chatbots (still) aren’t sentient.]

“Artificial intelligence cannot do that. It does not know the congregation,” argues Simmerlain.

Despite ChatGPT’s relatively recent arrival, Simmerlein’s project isn’t the first religious AI experiment to make headlines. Late last year, a rabbi in East Hampton, NY debuted a sermon authored by OpenAI’s large language model program, to similarly mixed reactions from his synagogue. And despite tech companies’ controversial bluffs to the contrary, it’s unlikely AI advancements will slow down anytime soon. “Artificial intelligence will increasingly take over our lives, in all its facets,” said Simmerlein over the weekend. “And that’s why it’s useful to learn to deal with it.”