Escaping the A.I. church trend

These days nearly everyone is talking about A.I., aka Artificial Intelligence. Some are wondering how this ever-changing technology is affecting faith and church life. My particular congregation is loaded with a good number of folks who work in the cyber and programming fields. I’m having these conversations pretty regularly lately.

The truth is that this technological trend has been at work in the church for several decades. We have bundles of sermons available for download at an affordable rate – the preacher no longer has to study. We have virtual church which we can enjoy from the comfort of our home without having to interact with any humans. We have giving kiosks in our church lobbies that replace the visceral act of cheerfully sacrificing our money. Some of this might be helpful I suppose. But I fear for those who stop thinking about things, specifically as it applies to our faith. Let me illustrate.

Technology, the Industrial Revolution, the Internet – all of these things have made our lives easier. It’s amazing to have a car that can take you somewhere to buy the things you need. The miracle of modern medicine is truly just that, a miracle. The information available on the internet allows us to utilize the world’s learning to solve problems in a moment’s notice. Yes, scientific advancement is a wonder. Machines and computers have made our lives easier, fixed our problems, and extended our lifespan.

But we must be careful. Without a reason to work, muscles atrophy. Without a need to think or discover, the mind becomes dull. This is the premise of H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine. In this short work the hero travels far forward into the future only to find a civilization that had become (will become?) so advanced that it no longer had any ability to think for itself, but merely existed. Think Wall-E; the parallels of that genius film and Well’s story are remarkable.

Once in the future, and among its citizens, the Time Traveller writes: “Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!”

In modern culture we certainly see this prophetically playing out. The ability to find directions or navigate is lost, relinquished to a cell phone. The art of cooking, the skill of auto repair, the basic practices of creative reading and writing – all are slowly becoming antiquated. We are inundated with “suggestions” of “content” and find ourselves spending hours consuming entertainment that has no value. Your cell phone is listening to you right now, gathering data today on how to control you tomorrow. Let’s be honest, how many of us have really been “assisted” by a virtual chat bot for this or that? We live in a world where university students think we beat the Russians by being the first to set foot on the sun.

What does this have to do with church and faith? I pose these questions:

What is the substance of faith if a person does no thinking to arrive at what they believe? How much does the Holy Spirit truly inhabit a church if the leadership relinquishes the work of prayer and divine guidance to copy pasting someone else’s ideas? How real is our love for our brother and sister if “church” for us means watching a polished service in our pajamas at home? If creativity and the hard-fought gritty work of pastors is replaced by machines that write sermons (this is already happening), who is really leading the church? When risk on the divine gives way to dependence on the predictable and controlled, is God around at all?

In turn, something happens when we fight through the mire and work hard for what we want in the faith. People grow when they spend the time to create a teaching or plan a vacation Bible school. The agony required of a leader to head first into the jungle, blind faith leading him or her into the unknown, makes for a better pastor. A dive into the Greek, in an effort to better understand the text, does something to the soul. A sermon first lived because the person delivering it has been there has authority and unction that a quickly-generated treatise does not.

Beyond that, people bleed and sweat. Machines don’t. I believe the truest expression of the church is one that is not automated, but organic. It’s not artificial, but it’s real. It’s not formatted, but it’s friendly. It’s not polished, but it’s genuine. It’s not perfect, but it’s alive. These are people things, and Spirit things. Let’s surrender the church to the wonderful leading of the divine Breath, the very Spirit of God.

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