An experimental church service composed and led by ChatGPT attracted a congregation of over 300 people at a Lutheran church in Germany. The AI-powered chatbot led the believers to rise up and praise the Lord and even led the Lord’s Prayer.

ChatGPT Takes the Pulpit

Since its launch last year, ChatGPT has been engaged in various fields such as medicine, law, art, and music to test its ability to adapt and deliver compared to human experts. And so far, the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chatbot has proven to be capable despite having room for improvement in many areas.

Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna, chose to put this technology to the test in the field of religion. Using the prompt, ‘We are at the church congress, you are a preacher … what would a church service look like?’, Simmerlein created a sermon using ChatGPT.

The 40-minute service consisted of a sermon, prayers, and music curated by the chatbot. The 29-year-old Simmerlain told Associated Press:

“I conceived this service — but actually I rather accompanied it, because I would say about 98% comes from the machine.”

The service was then presented as one among hundreds of events held at the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, a protestant conference that is held every two years in summer where tens of thousands of Christians gather in different locations in Germany.

During the convention, they discuss current events and try to find solutions to pressing problems. This year, the conference was held at the Bavarian towns of Nuremberg and the adjacent Fuerth and the focus subjects included global warming, the conflict in Ukraine, and artificial intelligence.

The convention also has a theme and this year’s was “Now is the time.” This was one of the statements Simmerlein fed the chatbot when he asked ChatGPT to create the sermon. He also asked for psalms to be included and a blessing at the end.

The AI church service attracted so much interest that a line of people formed outside St. Paul’s church in Fürth an hour before it started. “Dear friends, it is an honor for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany,” the chatbot began.

The chatbot took the form of four different avatars on the screen, two young women, and two young men, as it led the entire service.

The congregation of Christians listened intently as the AI gave a sermon on letting go of the past, concentrating on the difficulties of the present, overcoming the fear of death, and never losing faith in Jesus Christ.

The AI-generated avatar occasionally unintentionally elicited laughs, such as when it uttered platitudes and advised the churchgoers with a deadpan look that “to keep our faith, we must pray and go to church regularly.”

However, the chatbot was not able to respond to the laughter and reactions of the congregation as a human preacher would. In fact, the avatars were defined as having a “fixed expression and monotone voice”, void of any emotion or soul.

Is AI The Future of Worship?

As expected, the service drew mixed reactions from attendees. When the service first began, Heiderose Schmidt, a 54-year-old IT professional, said she was intrigued and enthusiastic, but as time went on, she grew more and more put off by it.

“There was no heart and no soul. The avatars showed no emotions at all, had no body language, and were talking so fast and monotonously that it was very hard for me to concentrate on what they said,” she said.

On the other hand, Marc Jansen, a 31-year-old Lutheran pastor from Troisdorf near the western German city of Cologne said he was more impressed by the experiment. “I had actually imagined it to be worse. But I was positively surprised by how well it worked. Also, the language of the AI worked well, even though it was still a bit bumpy at times.”

As with every application of AI recently, there are fears and anxieties that emanate, and in this case, an attendee, Anna Puzio, worried that since the AI was very human-like, it could easily be used to deceive believers.

Puzio who is a researcher on the ethics of technology from the University of Twente in The Netherlands, also expressed the need for AI to represent all the views present in Christianity seeing as the religion has more than one perspective.

In the end, Simmerlein said that the technology could be used to supplement some tasks that religious leaders carry out but could not entirely substitute them because it does not know the congregation as they do.

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