Can a chatbot preach a good sermon? Hundreds attend ChatGPT-generated church service to find out

FUERTH, Germany (AP) — The artificial intelligence chatbot has asked believers at the packed St. Paul’s Church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth to rise from the pews and praise the Lord.

The ChatGPT chatbot, personified as an avatar of a bearded black man on a giant screen above the altar, then began preaching to the more than 300 people who had turned up Friday morning for an almost experimental Lutheran church service. entirely generated by AI.

“Dear friends, it’s an honor for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s Protestant convention in Germany,” the avatar said with an expressionless face and voice. monotone.

The 40-minute service – including the sermon, prayers and music – was created by ChatGPT and Jonas Simmerlein, theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna.

“I designed this service – but actually I kinda went with it, because I’d say about 98% comes from the machine,” the 29-year-old academic told The Associated Press.

AI’s church service was one of hundreds of events at the Protestant convention in the Bavarian towns of Nuremberg and nearby Fuerth, and it generated such interest that people formed a long line of waiting in front of the 19th century neo-Gothic building an hour before it starts.

The convention itself – Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in German – takes place every two years in the summer at a different location in Germany and attracts tens of thousands of believers to pray, sing and discuss their faith. They also talk about world news and seek solutions to key issues, which this year included global warming, the war in Ukraine and artificial intelligence.

This year’s gathering runs from Wednesday to Sunday under the motto “Now is the time”. This tagline was one of the phrases Simmerlein fed into ChatGPT when he asked the chatbot to develop the sermon.

“I said to the artificial intelligence, ‘We’re at the church convention, you’re a preacher…what would a church service be like?'” Simmerlein said. He also requested that psalms be included, along with prayers and a blessing at the end.

“You end up with a pretty solid church service,” Simmerlein said, sounding almost surprised by the success of his experiment.

Indeed, believers in the church listened intently as the artificial intelligence preached to leave the past behind, focus on the challenges of the present, overcome the fear of death, and never lose faith in Jesus. -Christ.

The entire service was “led” by four different on-screen avatars, two young women and two young men.

At times, the AI-generated avatar would inadvertently cause laughter, such as when it used platitudes and told worshipers with a tongue-in-cheek expression that to “keep our faith, we must pray and go to church. regularly”.

Some people excitedly filmed the event with their cellphones, while others watched more critically and refused to speak loudly during the Lord’s Prayer.

Heiderose Schmidt, a 54-year-old woman who works in IT, said she was excited and curious when the service started but found it increasingly off-putting as it went on.

“There was no heart or soul,” she said. “The avatars showed no emotion, had no body language, and spoke so quickly and monotonously that it was very difficult for me to concentrate on what they were saying.”

“But maybe it’s different for the younger generation who grew up with all of this,” Schmidt added.

Marc Jansen, a 31-year-old Lutheran pastor from Troisdorf near the city of Cologne in western Germany, brought a group of teenagers from his congregation to St. Paul. He was more impressed with the experience.

“Actually, I had imagined it would be worse. But I was positively surprised at how well it worked. Also, the AI ​​language worked well, if still a bit bumpy at times,” Jansen said.

What the young pastor lacked, however, was any form of emotion or spirituality, which he says is essential when writing his own sermons.

Anna Puzio, 28, a researcher in technology ethics at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, also attended the ceremony. She said she sees a lot of opportunity in using AI in religion — like making religious services more readily available and inclusive for believers who, for various reasons, may not be able to live. their faith in person with others in places of worship.

However, she noted that there are also dangers when it comes to the use of AI in religion.

“The challenge I see is that AI is very human and easy to be tricked by it,” she said.

“Also, we don’t just have one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI needs to represent as well,” she said. “We have to be careful that it is not used for purposes such as spreading a single opinion.”

Simmerlein said he has no intention of replacing religious leaders with artificial intelligence. Rather, he sees the use of AI as a way to help them in their daily work in their congregations.

Some pastors look to literature for inspiration, he says, so why not ask AI for ideas for an upcoming sermon as well. Others would like to have more time for one-on-one spiritual guidance of their parishioners, so why not speed up the sermon writing process using a chatbot to have time for other important tasks.

“Artificial intelligence will increasingly take control of our lives, in all its facets,” Simmerlein said. “And that’s why it’s useful to learn how to deal with it.”

However, the experimental church service also showed the limitations of implementing artificial AI in church or religion. There was no real interaction between believers and the chatbot, which was unable to respond to laughter or any other reaction from worshipers as a human pastor might have.

“The pastor is in the congregation, she lives with them, she buries people, she knows them from the start,” Simmerlein said. “Artificial intelligence can’t do that. It doesn’t know the congregation.”


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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