In the Bavarian town of Fuerth, Germany, a packed St. Paul’s church witnessed an experimental Lutheran church service led by an artificial intelligence chatbot named ChatGPT. Projected as an avatar on a large screen above the altar, the AI chatbot engaged the more than 300 attendees in prayers, music, and a sermon for a duration of 40 minutes. The service, organized by Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna, was almost entirely generated by ChatGPT, with Simmerlein’s involvement being minimal.
The service attracted significant interest during the convention of Protestants in the neighboring towns of Nuremberg and Fuerth. The convention, known as Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, takes place biennially, drawing tens of thousands of believers to discuss their faith, global issues, and this year’s focus on artificial intelligence, among other topics. Simmerlein instructed ChatGPT to develop the sermon by providing the slogan “Now is the time” and requesting the inclusion of psalms, prayers, and a closing blessing.
During the service, the AI-generated avatars, two young women and two young men, led the congregation. While some attendees enthusiastically recorded the event, others felt disconnected, perceiving the avatars as lacking emotions, body language, and delivering monotonous speeches. The reactions to the AI service varied among the attendees, with younger generations potentially having a different perspective due to growing up with technology.
Some participants, like Marc Jansen, a Lutheran pastor, were pleasantly surprised by the experiment’s effectiveness, noting that the AI’s language was generally good, although lacking the emotion and spirituality found in his own sermons. Anna Puzio, an ethics of technology researcher, recognized the potential benefits of AI in religion, such as providing accessibility and inclusivity for believers unable to attend physical services. However, she also expressed caution about the risks of AI manipulation and the need to represent diverse Christian opinions.
Simmerlein emphasized that the purpose of incorporating AI into religious practices is not to replace human leaders but to assist them in their daily tasks within congregations. He believes that as AI becomes more integrated into our lives, it is crucial to learn how to navigate its applications. Nevertheless, the experimental church service highlighted the limitations of AI in religion, particularly the absence of genuine interaction between the chatbot and the congregation. Simmerlein emphasized the unique role of pastors who intimately know and engage with their communities, which AI cannot replicate.