ChatGPT has got some preachers spooked. I’m hearing some noted preachers, and teachers of preaching, nervously proclaiming that the sermon is safe from the chatbot because, well, ChatGPT can’t preach. But is that entirely true?
It’s certainly true that ChatGPT can currently write sermons.
Recently, a New York rabbi named Josh Franklin preached a sermon written entirely by ChatGPT. After he’d finished, Franklin confessed he hadn’t written a word of it and asked his congregation who they thought he’d borrowed/stolen it from. Various suggestions were offered before he revealed it was written by the chatbot. Everyone was astonished.
So ChatGPT can write sermons. And ones that are good enough to fool a New York Jewish congregation.
So it can’t be too long before you can get a chatbot to present their sermons as well. Who knows how long before Siri or Alexa or whatever avatar ChatGPT becomes is the guest speaker in your church service. People who currently attend satellite congregations of multisite megachurches are already used to disembodied preachers preaching to them. Why not a chatbot voice?
Russell Moore from Christianity Today has conceded, “A chatbot can research. A chatbot can write. Perhaps a chatbot can even orate…” But then he adds plaintively, “But a chatbot can’t preach.” (That last sentence sounded more like wishful thinking to me.)
So, is it true that a chatbot can’t replace your regular preaching?
Some church leaders say that real preaching can’t be replicated by a bot because it’s a personal medium. Preaching is a creative, passionate, prophetic endeavor. Chatbots can’t clone it because they can’t express the heart and soul of the preaching moment.
Writing for Preaching Today, Alison Gerber agrees, saying, “ChatGPT can only search and assemble from what has come before. ChatGPT has no future in mind. Yet whether it be prophetic preaching, or creative preaching, or prayerful preaching—there is preaching that has a future in mind. Therefore faithful, future-oriented preachers, if this is your preaching ministry take heart, ChatGPT has no future in your pulpit.”
This is similar to what Nick Cave said recently. A fan had asked the AI chatbot to write a song in the style of the Australian singer-songwriter and the result didn’t impress Cave one bit. He wrote, “ChatGPT may be able to write a speech or an essay or a sermon or an obituary but it cannot create a genuine song … Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel.”
Algorithms don’t feel.
And there’s the clue.
I don’t agree with Gerber that preachers can take heart that ChatGPT has “no future” in the pulpit. As a research tool, I think it will become as valuable to preachers as any commentary. Because, let’s face it, way too much preaching these days is simply the repackaging of old material drawn from commentaries, websites, and (sorry) other people’s sermons. Preachers who cobble together ideas from various sources, fitting bits together like Dr Frankenstein in his lab, explaining things they don’t fully understand, insisting on lives they’ve never lived, will benefit enormously from ChatGPT. The AI chatbot will be able to prepare a better sermon than they ever could.
But what the chatbot can’t do is feel.
ChatGPT can’t imagine! All it can do is assemble.
Japanese artist, Makato Fujimura has pointed out the danger of reducing theology to Enlightenment categories, to systems and formulas. In his 2021 book Art and Faith, Fujimura explores theology as an act of beauty. He promotes a “theology of making” — the practice of expressing our spirituality through the creation of art, as opposed to what he calls “plumbing theology,” which is simply concerned with developing utilitarian tools for solving a problem. The reduction he warns of is exactly the form of knowledge that computer-based production like ChatGPT renders.
In the day of ChatGPT, preachers need to see themselves as artists and their sermons as works of art..
Back in 2008, long before anyone imagined the Internet writing sermons, Washington DC pastor Mark Batterson wrote about the need for “right-brain preaching,” the kind of creative presentations that capture the imaginations of their listeners. Drawing on an old art theory called Berlyne’s Law, he declared that what makes certain sermons great is the same thing that makes certain great art. The psychologist Davis Berlyne had claimed that some art is considered great when it deviates slightly from the viewer’s expectations. If an artist deviates too much from our expectations we find their work alienating and bizarre. Some modern art strikes the average viewer this way. Like this painting:
However, if an artist conforms too perfectly to our expectations it’s considered dull and uninteresting. Like this:
David Berlyne said what strikes us as good art is usually a slight deviation from our expectations. We know the stars in the sky don’t swirl like Vincent’s Starry Night. We know that war doesn’t look exactly like Picasso’s Guernica or that all the disciples sat on the one side of a long table as in Da Vinci’s Last Supper. These images approximate their subject but with deviations. They capture their subject with whimsy (Starry Night) or horror (Guernica) or by depicting its gravity (Last Supper).
Batterson says it’s the same with preaching. He wrote, “To stay connected with contemporary minds preaching needs to say old things in new ways. Preaching should approach truth from slightly different angles, almost like turning a kaleidoscope. Great preaching then is a slight deviation from expectation.”
He quotes from Thomas Moore’s book Care of the Soul, “It’s my conviction that slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change.”
An ambitious sermon that’s too technical or too theologically complex or too experimental will only alienate a congregation. But, on the other hand, we’re bored by three predictable points and a couple of generic illustrations. It’s all in the slight deviation from expectation. And knowing how much and in which ways to deviate, well, that takes finesse and pastoral wisdom. And here’s where ChatGPT will struggle. It can create a sermon that looks like that still life with the bowl of fruit above. It can produce a theologically acceptable treatise, reflecting on a nominated biblical passage, in the style of CH Spurgeon or Beth Moore or Tim Keller or Aimee Semple McPherson or whoever. But it would be colorless and lucklustre. It would be the sermon equivalent of a Bob Ross painting.
In his book Imagining a Sermon, Thomas Troeger suggests there are three types of imagination, all of which can and should be employed by preachers.
1. Conventional imagination: This is the imagination that we have inherited from listening to other preachers and from being part of a particular church tradition. There are certain hymns, like Silent Night at Christmas and Christ the Lord is Risen Today at Easter, that are part of the way that we imagine the faith. These are very precious things that have been given to us and they make it possible for us to worship together as a community.
The conventional imagination employs the world of Scripture, symbol, and religious practice that is alive in the congregation. Effective preachers honor the conventional imagination of the people to whom they preach because they realize it is the congregation’s imaged/imagined world of holy meaning. It is a world filled with memory and spiritual power.
2. Empathic imagination: This is the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. One of the hallmarks of effective preachers is that they have the ability not just to know their own experience but also to ask “What is the experience of my people?” If a minister has no empathetic imagination, he or she is not going to be able to connect with a congregation.
The empathic imagination is the capacity of preachers to entertain experiences and perspectives unlike their own. The empathic imagination empowers them to help people stretch their hearts beyond their own concerns to those of God, and the larger world of the human family.
3. Visionary imagination: This involves the capacity to see and to respond to new things that God is doing in the world. Visionary imagination helps the preacher to see that the church could be so much more than it is. The visionary imagination is deliberately attentive to the fresh and unexpected movement of the Spirit so that the preacher is given to see new ways of understanding the Bible and tradition, new worlds, new language for articulating faith in Christ and identifying the holiest dreams of the heart of God.
Troeger says, “The task of the visionary preacher is not to darken and contract, but to enlighten and expand the landscape of the heart, to broaden the capacity of human beings to extend the grace and compassion of God to others.”
How do preachers cultivate the kinds of imagination Troeger talks about? By reading across a variety of disciplines. By cultivating friendships, socializing widely, and pursuing creative partnerships with others. By fostering a childlike sense of wonder. By finding times to incubate ideas not just investigate them. By praying for wisdom and grace.
But most importantly, by suffering with humility. Martin Luther used to say that prayer, meditation, and suffering made a preacher. Sermons are not made from books so much as from battles and burdens. Nick Cave says the best songs arise out of suffering. The same is true of preaching. In response to ChatGPT’s attempt at a “Nick Cave song,” he wrote,
“Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognizes as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering.”
Imagine if preaching was like that! ChatGPT definitely couldn’t replicate it.