A new year has begun. But the passing of this holiday season also marks over one year since the initial release of ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence initiatives. The internet continues to be abuzz about all the ways AI is revolutionizing our lives — ministry included. “AI offers pastors the gift of time,” advertised a Christianity Today article from December promoting an AI tool for pastors and churches. There is a touch of irony here. At a time when we were celebrating God coming down and becoming human, artificial intelligence presented new challenges to the ways we interact with one another.
There is no way to avoid it. The technologies that live in front of us — whether we recognize it or not — shape our desires and our environments in subtle ways. Pastors should be at the forefront of thinking about the ethical implications of the digital public square — for their own spiritual health and the health of their people.
Set aside discussions of the good or bad motivations of technology creators, and the ways technology change our approach to thinking and living in the world are still not value-neutral. If we don’t continue to question the value of any technology, then it “gains the greatest opportunity to enslave us,” writes theologian John Dyer. We must continue to consider each new piece.
One of the greatest appeals of technology, AI included, is the promise of efficiency. This is also one of its greatest dangers. It’s the trap of believing: “If I had more time and could streamline things, I could be more successful.” We can easily fall into this trap. Pastors are no different; if anything, they feel more pressure to be efficient.
The point of serving Christ, however — whether as a pastor or as a believer in any other vocational path — is about the process, not about the efficiency. Spiritual growth and formation is something that we simply cannot short-circuit. The liturgical calendar, transiting from Christmastime to anticipating the Lenten season that is on the horizon, reminds us that there are rhythms and seasons to life that carry us through the slow, steady progress of spiritual growth.
Efficiency, then, isn’t the primary goal; immediate, personal relationship is. The Bible is full of stories that acknowledge the might and power of God; we know that God’s ways are beyond our reasoning and understanding (Isa 55:8–9). God took his time to save us. He chose to send his Son, Jesus, to dwell with us as a baby, to live as a human for decades before even beginning his public ministry, and to then partner with us, in all our fallenness, to spread the Gospel and ultimately give himself for our salvation.
Personal relationship also serves as a counter to another key danger of technology, particularly of the internet: isolation. Technology tends to gnosticize our relationships, leading us to interpret the world created online as the “real world,” instead of the immediate material world, the one we share with our friends and family. Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that devalued the material world and privileged the unseen, immaterial world. The ethical implications of such a view veer toward diminishing and devaluing the blessings of authentic friendships and the joys of life lived in community.
At face value, this may seem counterintuitive. After all, the seemingly greatest benefit of the digital world is the opportunity to connect with people everywhere. But study after study shows that we who rely so much on connecting technology feel more and more alone as we use it. “We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans,” writes Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together. “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
Those in the church are not immune from this culture of isolation either. I have often heard pastors remark that the busyness of life in the modern world — busyness often accelerated by technology — results in people getting together less. It is a strange social concoction that people have never been more connected and yet have no time to connect, to meet up, leaving little opportunity for authentic interpersonal communication and little time for the relationships that prompt spiritual growth and maturity. While we benefit from technology every day, my abiding fear is that the ends of the applications of this technology — particularly in Christian ministry — will continue to guide us to value their function over their influence on spiritual formation.
We may gain some real benefits with the advent of AI, from streamlining processes to outsourcing routine tasks, but perhaps we should also be discerning: Are simplifying these tasks inhibiting authentic spiritual formation for both pastors and people in the pews? Christian leaders ought to be on the forefront of thinking through ways our technology use shapes us. Thankfully, more books (like Samuel James’s book Digital Liturgies or collection of essays The Digital Public Square) are arriving that help pastors engage this topic head-on. Pastors and ministry leaders can be vigilant about these kinds of social changes. When they are vigilant, they can better create embodied communities that are formative for their churches.
The turning of the seasons and the new year reminds us that the incarnation, the real presence of Christ, is a cornerstone of the Christian faith that prepares God’s people to serve him in love and faithfulness. I am sure there will be ways that AI can help support our ministries, but first and foremost, we need discerning pastors who, amid technology’s changes and advances, remind us that we are called to fear the Lord and walk in his ways (Ps 128:1). And God’s vision of the spiritual life calls us to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, within a vibrant, loving community of faith.