In the fully packed St. Paul’s church located in the Bavarian town of Fuerth, the artificial intelligence chatbot requested the attendees to stand and offer their praises to the Lord.
The chatbot’s request was met with enthusiasm as hundreds of believers rose from their seats to worship in unison.
A huge screen above the altar at the St. Paul’s church in Fuerth displayed the ChatGPT chatbot as an avatar of a bearded Black man. The experimental Lutheran church service, attended by over 300 people on Friday morning, was almost entirely generated by AI.
The chatbot began to preach to the attendees in its unique and computerized voice, as the virtual avatar above the altar provided a visual representation of its message. The experimental service marked an innovative attempt to explore the intersection of technology and faith.
The avatar of the ChatGPT chatbot, with its expressionless face and monotonous voice, addressed the congregation at the convention of Protestants in Germany.
“As the first artificial intelligence to address you at this year’s convention, I consider it a great privilege to preach to you, dear friends,” the chatbot said, attempting to engage the attendees despite its lack of human emotions and expressions.
The 40-minute long service at St. Paul’s church in Fuerth was entirely created by ChatGPT and the theologian-philosopher from the University of Vienna, Jonas Simmerlein.
The creation of the service included the selection of prayers and music and the preparation of the sermon. This experimental approach in utilizing AI for religious services represents a futuristic approach to the integration of technology into faith-based practices.
According to the 29-year-old theologian-philosopher from the University of Vienna, Jonas Simmerlein, he conceived the service, but with the involvement of AI, he merely accompanied it.
“In reality, I would say that about 98% of the service originated from the machine,” Simmerlein told The Associated Press, highlighting the dominance of AI in creating the church service. This experimental approach, although unfamiliar to many, displays the potential of technological progress in shifting the frontiers of traditional practices.
One of the highlights of the convention of Protestants in the Bavarian towns of Nuremberg and Fuerth was the AI church service, which drew massive interest from attendees.
Due to the immense interest in the service, people began to form a long queue outside the 19th-century neo-Gothic building where it would take place an hour before its scheduled start time.
The experimental service was one of hundreds of events at the convention designed to capture the attention of attendees and showcase new forms of worship that integrate technology with traditional practices.
The Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, a bi-annual Protestant convention that takes place in Germany during the summer, drew tens of thousands of believers this year to engage in discussions, pray, and sing songs of worship.
The convention, which is also known as the German Protestant Church Assembly, features various activities aimed at discussing global challenges and finding solutions to key issues. This year’s event tackled topics such as global warming, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the rising prominence of artificial intelligence.
As attendees explored the intersections between faith and modernity, the use of AI in creating the church service provided a unique opportunity to explore new ways of integrating technology and worship.
The current gathering of the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag is scheduled to take place from Wednesday to Sunday under the banner “Now is the time.” This motto was one of the statements that Jonas Simmerlein fed into ChatGPT when he instructed the chatbot to create the sermon.
By incorporating the event’s slogan into the development of the service, the chatbot’s sermon connected with the overarching theme of the convention, highlighting the potential of AI to capitalize on unique opportunities that promote meaningful engagement and interactivity.
When asked about the creation of the AI church service, Jonas Simmerlein stated that he gave ChatGPT specific instructions to develop a service that would be appropriate for the church congress. His directive included the integration of psalms, prayers, and a blessing at the end of the service.
The result was a impressive church service that fully engaged the attendees. Simmerlein was pleased with the success of his experiment, expressing his surprise at the AI’s ability to create a solid service.
As the artificial intelligence preached about leaving the past behind and overcoming the challenges of the present, the audience listened attentively, addressing issues such as the fear of death and the importance of maintaining faith in Jesus Christ.
The service was conducted entirely by four avatars on the screen, consisting of two young women and two young men, all of whom were generated by AI technology. While the attendees listened to the AI-generated avatar delivering its message, at times, its platitudes and monotonous expression evoked laughter from the crowd.
While some enthusiastically recorded the service on their cell phones, others viewed it more skeptically, refusing to participate in reciting The Lord’s Prayer aloud. For 54-year-old IT worker Heiderose Schmidt, who initially watched the service with excitement and curiosity, it gradually became more disturbing as it progressed.
According to Schmidt, the AI-led service lacked heart and soul, with the avatars displaying no emotions and using monotonous speech that made it difficult to comprehend their message. The impact of the technology on traditional practices such as worship will continue to be debated as technological advancements continue to evolve in society.
Heiderose Schmidt suggested that the younger generation, who are more accustomed to technology, might have a different perspective on the AI-led service.
On the other hand, Marc Jansen, a Lutheran pastor from Troisdorf, brought a group of teenagers from his congregation to attend the service and was astounded by the experience. While he initially believed that the service might not be up to his standard, he was surprised by how well it went, especially considering the language used by the AI.
However, the young pastor did say that he missed the emotional and spiritual nature that is essential to his sermons. Despite technological advancements making headway into traditional practices like worship, many continue to believe that a human touch is irreplaceable.
Anna Puzio, an expert researcher on the ethics of technology from the University of Twente in The Netherlands, was also in attendance and sees tremendous opportunities for AI applications in religion. She believes that AI technology can make religious services more accessible and inclusive for those who, for various reasons, cannot attend their services in person.
However, she also cautions against the potential dangers of AI in religion. Because AI can appear very human-like, there is a risk of being deceived. She warns against the misuse of AI as a tool for spreading only one opinion.
Jonas Simmerlein, on the other hand, believes that AI is not going to replace religious leaders but rather help them in their work. He uses AI to assist ministers in their everyday activities and to expand the possibilities for spiritual engagement beyond the church.
Simmerlein believes that AI can be used as a tool to complement pastoral work. For instance, pastors can use AI for inspiration ideas while preparing sermons. Additionally, chatbots can be employed to assist in saving time while prioritizing duties such as individual spiritual guidance for parishioners.
Simmerlein noted the potential that AI offers to enhance spiritual engagement and prepare for the influence of technological advancements on traditional practices such as worship. The utilization of AI technology could allow pastors to remain relevant in a constantly evolving technological society.
Simmerlein acknowledges that while AI offers many benefits, it is crucial to understand the limitations of technology. AI is not a replacement for pastors living in the community, performing rites of passage, or regulating ecclesiastical life events as part of the congregation.
Simmerlein emphasizes the importance of learning how to deal with AI since it is an ever-increasing influence on various aspects of life. AI technology is expected to take over many conventional tasks, and it is essential to understand its features, operations, and limitations. The future calls for an increased understanding of how to integrate AI into the current frameworks while preserving the essence and values of traditional practices, including religion.
While the experimental church service showcased the potential of integrating AI into religious practices, it also revealed its limits. The chatbot was unable to interact with the believers, leading to a lack of engagement.
As the churchgoers laughed or reacted to the chatbot’s preaching, the chatbot was unable to respond as a human pastor would. This lack of responsiveness and emotional connection prevented the AI technology from truly fulfilling the role of a pastor or religious leader.
While AI can supplement and enhance pastoral work, human interaction and connection remain essential elements of spiritual guidance and religious practice that can’t be replaced by technology.
According to Simmerlein, pastors have a unique and intimate relationship with their congregation, one that cannot be replicated by AI. They are present with the congregation, living with them, performing vital rituals such as burials and overseeing their spiritual growth and development.
Unlike a human pastor, AI technology cannot form that personal connection with a congregation, and due to its limitations, it cannot provide the same emotional support, empathy, or guidance that a human pastor can.
Although AI can play a supportive role in pastoral work, pastors’ physical presence and interpersonal skills remain essential elements in religious practices. The combination of human expertise with AI technology could lead to a constructive partnership, providing a perfect balance between traditional practice and the potential of technology.