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Barna study: pastors remain cautious in probing uses of AI

The above image was generated by ChatGPT using the following prompt: "Generate a picture of a Southern Baptist pastor who is fearful of AI."

NASHVILLE (BP) — According to a recent Barna study, pastors are becoming slightly more comfortable with Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a tool for some uses in the church but remain wary of its role when it comes to personal relationships.

It’s a sign that AI may not be the danger first feared to be, especially when considering how it was already in use through platforms such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. As those have advanced, though, so have the ways they can be used in organizational and administrative tasks.

And although AI has grabbed headlines, it still remains something on the periphery for many pastors.

T. Jay Smith, pastor of Beacon Hill Church in Cheyenne, Wyo., admits that as a 30-year-old he should be more familiar with AI. However, he shares the concerns of others when it comes to its potential impairment of relationships.

“I feel the more we communicate through machines and tech, the less we do face to face,” he said. “It’s just a way for us to grow further away [from each other].”

Barna’s findings led Smith to consider AI’s potential for tasks such as those for administration, as Beacon Hill lists only himself and a volunteer associate pastor as staff.

“It opened my eyes to some … possibilities,” he said.

According to the study, three out of four (77 percent) of U.S. pastors agree that God can work through AI. Top ministry-adjacent uses are for graphic design, marketing and tracking church attendance/engagement.

Using AI for theological tasks, however, remains a concern. While 43 percent of pastors see its potential for sermon preparation and research, only 12 percent say they are comfortable with using AI to actually write sermons.

Smith expressed those same concerns over fellow pastors using AI to the detriment of being led by the Spirit in tasks such as sermon prep. It’s a feeling shared on the other side of the state by Clint Scott, pastor of Hilltop Baptist Church in Green River.

AI is helpful as a source collection tool, as “the shortcut of compiling information saves me a ton of time,” he said.

However, Scott added, it “cannot be allowed to make us lazy preachers. … AI might be able to give you a working outline of a passage, but how can you truly know it is the truth that God desires for His church on that given Sunday?”

 Sermons, he added, shouldn’t be “a knowledge-derived presentation” but a “presentation of the heart.”

“AI will never be able to speak of Jesus in conversion language or understand how Jesus can transform anyone,” Scott said. “Giving away those small nuances of faith to a systematic computer will change the preaching hour from that of power and conviction to powerlessness and void of heart instruction.”

Those differences were addressed last fall in an episode of the podcast “Reconstructing Faith with Trevin Wax.” In an episode titled “No One Knows What’s Real Anymore,” Patrick Miller, director of Digital Relationships at The Crossing Church in Columbia, Mo., spoke on the difference between information and wisdom.

Miller did this using a hypothetical situation of Ezra from the Bible, a scholar who had been tasked with leading a group of exiles back to Jerusalem to rebuild Jewish society.

“I can imagine a lot of modern-day Ezras going to [AI] and asking, ‘How can we be faithful to the covenant as subjects of Persia?’ … and it would give you a six-point bulleted list of how you should respond.

“[That’s] very different from what Ezra did. In Ezra 7:10 he firmly resolved in his heart to study the Torah of Yahweh, to do it and teach it in Israel in statutes and judgements. He had to develop wisdom to be able to do that,” Miller said. 

The effects of AI thus far are wide. It’s being used in ways such as to diagnose coronary artery disease risk during mammograms and predict which drugs are unsafe to use together. However, to echo the warnings of pastors, it is also becoming more of an option for those wanting companionship.

In what can be considered a positive sign for church leaders, the study also revealed that Christians aren’t looking for an AI-expert pastor. That doesn’t mean church leaders should ignore its presence though. Advances in communication have happened before.

Pastors need, as best they can, to talk about things like AI while “continuing to build face-to-face interactions and relationships,” said Smith.

Social media, he pointed out, also began as a space that pastors weren’t sure how to use. Being involved early with those platforms could have introduced ways to be a positive witness for Christ.

“Maybe it would be good to stand in the gap,” he said on evaluating the uses of AI, “and help guide others to the best of our ability.”