5 Shifts Every Pastor Needs to Make When It Comes to Ai This Year

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Pastors and church leaders seem to be developing a curious relationship with AI. They generally don’t use it, but almost everyone has an opinion about it.

According to a Gloo/Barna survey, only 19% of pastors use AI daily or weekly. Fully 44% say they have never used it, and an additional 18% say they rarely use it.

As AI becomes more and more a part of everyday life, a few things have to change, especially if church leaders are going to speak authentically into the life and experience of the next generation.
Pastors generally don’t use AI, but almost everyone has an opinion about it. CLICK TO TWEET

Here are 5 shifts pastors (and church leaders) need to make when it comes to AI:

Shift One: Shrink the Gap Between Opinions About AI and The Use of AI

According to the same Gloo/Barna survey, 63% of pastors described their understanding of AI as “knowledgeable” or “somewhat knowledgeable.”

But when asked about their experience with using AI, 67% of pastors said they had “no experience” with AI or classified themselves as beginners.

In other words, pastors’ opinions about AI are outpacing their authority on AI.

Sure, it’s natural to have opinions on things you have little or no experience with. For example, you may have opinions about World War Two even though you were born four decades after the war or opinions about TikTok even though you’re not on TikTok.

And to have opinions about AI decoupled from any experience with AI is understandable in the early stage of AI development, but as you’ll see in the following shifts, the people you serve and the people you reach will soon begin to detect the gap between experience and knowledge.

If that’s the case, you’ll lose credibility as a result.
Unfortunately, pastors’ opinions about AI are outpacing their authority on AI. CLICK TO TWEET

Shift Two: Start Exploring AI To See Where the Dangers Lie and Where the Potential Truly Is

Because only 19% of pastors intentionally use AI, most opinions about AI are likely formed on what they’ve heard about AI, rather than any direct experience.

I have many concerns about AI myself (I explore them with some of the world’s leading AI experts in the Ministry in the Age of AI podcast series), but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Nor does it mean that its widespread adoption isn’t inevitable.

As you already know, it’s not like you can escape using AI. Anyone who has used Siri, Alexa, Google Maps, Google Search, Netflix, or Instagram has used AI. It’s been around for years. But this next chapter will see it move from behind-the-scenes to center stage.

Fully 24% of pastors surveyed think AI should be condemned or resisted by the church. While that’s understandable, those views might be spawned by a lack of familiarity with AI or understanding of what it truly is.

AI is less like porn (which shouldn’t be used, condoned, or accepted by Christians), and more like social media or even the printing press. Social media is a mixed bag. It can be leveraged for good or evil. The same is true of the printed word. It can reproduce Scripture, poetry, or stunning prose, or it can be used to fuel hate, spread lies, and harm people.

It’s not the technology, per se, that makes AI good or bad. It’s the use.

And if Christian leaders continue to resist or ignore it, not only will we not be able to speak into it with any authority, we’ll miss all the good it could be used for.

Services like AICopilot.church and Church.Tech make it easy to start using AI to create sermon resources, social media content, and more.
It’s not the technology, per se, that makes AI good or bad. It’s the use. CLICK TO TWEET

Shift Three: Help Your Congregation Clarify What’s Happening

Confusion around AI is prevalent not just among church leaders but also among the congregation you serve.

According to Barna, when asked about their level of agreement with “I understand what AI is,” 55% of Gen Z agreed strongly (followed by 50% of Millennials, 38% of Gen X, and 19% of Boomers).

Similarly, when asked to select from a list of technologies they feel involve AI, only 33% of Gen Z select ChatGPT (followed by 58% of Millennials, 70% of Gen X, and 63% of Boomers). Being young is no guarantee that you have a clear understanding of AI.

About Barna’s Research: This data is based on a survey of 881 U.S. adults conducted online from November 21 – 27, 2023 via a consumer research panel. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 3.1 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Quotas were set to representation by region, race / ethnicity, education, age and gender based on the U.S. Census Bureau. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied to maximize sample representation.

When things change quickly, there’s always a tension between certainty and clarity.

Certainty is almost impossible to offer right now, with things changing so quickly and the unintended consequences of AI still largely unknown.

But clarity is always an option, even when that clarity involves sharing that you don’t know, aren’t sure, or have mixed feelings.

Walking together with your people through change is a far superior strategy than ignoring ambiguity or offering certainty when certainty isn’t credible.
Walking together with your people through change is a far superior strategy than ignoring ambiguity or offering certainty when certainty isn’t credible. CLICK TO TWEET

Shift Four: Help Your Congregation Understand What’s At Stake

The call for pastors to be pastors is always in season, and perhaps the greatest contribution you can make at a time like this is to help people think through what we know to be true in a sea of uncertainty.

For example, the one thing Christians (when we’ve been at our best) have always prioritized and celebrated is relationships.

With the rise of avatars, chatbots, sexbots, and personas all fueled by AI (not a positive development), the ability for humans to authentically and genuinely connect with each other in community has never been more important.

Barna’s research (referenced above) also suggests younger adults want to hear from their pastor ‘using AI in my personal relationships’ and ‘using AI in my personal communications.’ And more than older generations, young adults seek their church to guide them.

That’s good news because nobody should be able to out-relationship the local church.

Alternatively, to be silent or to base our views on unfounded opinions right now and ignore the massive change is to miss speaking into a defining moment for an emerging generation.
Nobody should be able to out-relationship the local church. CLICK TO TWEET

Shift Five: Embrace Transparency and Develop an AI Policy

In the same way that Gen Z wants guidance on AI and relationships, Millennials and older generations want openness and transparency in how AI is used within the church.

Ultimately, this is the year to adopt an AI policy for your church as to how it will be used (and not used) in ministry and to be transparent about that.

Specifically, you should be communicating clearly about data privacy, AI-driven decision-making, and the ethical considerations involved.

In addition to a formal policy, transparency in conversations and public communications about how AI is used should be normalized.

For example, this article started in ChatGPT. I fed ChatGPT some of the data involved and asked it to analyze it. I copied that over as the basis for this article and fact-checked everything it wrote (don’t worry, I thoroughly reviewed the data myself).

Not surprisingly, ChatGPT got some of the data correct and downright hallucinated on other points.

In the end, every word in this article ended up being written by me personally (except for direct data quotes from Barna). But ChatGPT got me thinking about how to angle it and which data mattered most.

And, believe it or not, Grammarly (another AI program) will spell and grammar-check this article before it goes live… again, followed up by a quick scan from a few more human eyes.

See, that wasn’t that hard, was it?

Failure to be transparent about your use of AI will be as frustrating as the plagiarism that happens among clergy who pass off other people’s sermons as their own. It’s hard to trust a Christian leader who lies.

Transparency and authenticity are highly valued by Gen Z and Millennials, and leaders who are transparent will earn and gain their trust.

So, when it comes to AI, be transparent.
Failure to be transparent about your use of AI will be as frustrating as the plagiarism that happens among clergy who pass off other people’s sermons as their own. It’s hard to trust a Christian leader who lies. CLICK TO TWEET

What Do You Think?

This is a crucial season for church leaders and AI. To miss this moment is to miss not only opportunities to leverage AI to make your church and ministry more effective but also to miss speaking to your church with the pastoral heart and voice they’re looking for.

The more you learn about AI, and the more you’re able to speak into it authentically, the more you’ll be able to reach, serve, and speak into the next generation.

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