How does AI preach? Kirchentag wants to give an answer
With the help of artificial intelligence, high school exams can be solved and even university final exams can be passed. However, many people are unsure. And now AI is supposed to preach in the church too?
No pastor, no pastor. And still theological thoughts, a sermon, prayers. The 39th German Evangelical Church Congress wants to know: Can artificial intelligence (AI) also hold church services? The theologian Jonas Simmerlein prepared this special service. But he will not preach the sermon in Fürth’s St. Paul Church on Friday – instead, an avatar will appear on a screen.
The text comes from an AI. Simmerland has already completed a test run in Vienna, where he currently works, so he is not breaking completely new ground. “There are various possibilities. You can set the framework, in the case of the Kirchentag: It’s the Evangelical Kirchentag 2023 in Nuremberg and Fürth. And she should give a sermon as an AI,” says Simmerlein. “If you name these framework conditions, she writes something corresponding and “remembers” what she has already said before. AI is not omniscient, you have to give her training wheels.”
He is particularly interested in the reactions of the churchgoers. That’s why there should also be a round of talks after the AI service.
Sermon by voice assistant
With his Vienna project, it was the case that people were encouraged to think: “It was very provocative, classic topics that you normally hear from a pastor, again in a completely different way from a voice Assistant. It’s like a human-like voice is speaking.” The whole thing should be visualized with avatars. “And if you look at it for a while, you tend to forget that it’s not a ‘real person’ who is speaking on the screen, but that there are programs that simulate it.”
So where is the journey going with AI in the service? Will a screen and a tablet soon be enough, will you no longer need theological staff, which has become rare in both the Catholic and Protestant churches?
Search for the middle ground
Simmerlein says: “I would be very relaxed about it, nobody wants to replace churches and pastors with AI. Churches exist because people go there and say: I find support and comfort there. If artificial intelligence could now manage that people let an AI tell you something every Sunday – that’s how it is.” But that will probably not be the case. “Most people will say: I would like to have someone up front who is mortal, who has also experienced grief, etc. That’s why it won’t be that interesting for many people. But that doesn’t mean that things don’t change too can.”
The Erlangen theology professor and former chairman of the German Ethics Council, Peter Dabrock, advocates a middle ground when it comes to AI in the context of church and theology: “As far as AI is concerned, I would say at the current status: I have major problems when chatbots are used on the Internet would be for psychotherapy or pastoral care. According to the AI Act, which the EU is now planning, it is therefore rightly provided that it must be announced whether one is communicating with a bot or with a human counterpart.”
Don’t demonize technology
In other areas it is more relaxed. “If, for example, you have a conversation with ChatGPT while preparing a sermon, that’s a conceivable option – in addition to reading or a conversation in the community group. Whether that’s just as good is an open question. In any case, the technology shouldn’t be demonized in a religious context, but nor praise it to the heavens.”
The chairwoman of the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Annette Kurschus, had already commented on the subject of AI at Easter: “Artificial intelligence cannot love; it cannot empathize, cannot show understanding.” However, these so-called soft factors are crucial for human life, she said in an interview with the Funke media group.