Should you use ChatGPT to write your next talk in church?

By Emily Ashcraft, | Posted – Feb. 26, 2023 at 10:17 a.m.


PROVO — People now have the option to assign their writing tasks to artificial intelligence, thanks to technology like ChatGPT. And it is kind of surprising how well the system does, although its responses are not always without errors.

In the last month, there have been many conversations about whether ChatGPT could be used to write a sermon, or if it would be missing something. One pastor said the AI technology can’t replicate the passion of actual preaching.

“It lacks a soul – I don’t know how else to say it,” Hershael York, a pastor in Kentucky who also is a professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Associated Press.

Lazy pastors might be tempted to use AI for this purpose, York said, “but not the great shepherds, the ones who love preaching, who love their people.”

I gave ChatGPT the same prompt my bishop sent to me a few weeks ago when I was preparing for a talk in my congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It produced an eight paragraph talk that closely resembled the structure of talks I’m used to hearing from the pulpit. It started with “brothers and sisters,” included a scripture and ended with an invitation. It stayed on topic, was accurate to my understanding of the gospel and made connections between different gospel topics.

I quickly realized, it’s possible I may actually use ChatGPT as I prepare future talks, after I learn how to build a better prompt. And this sermon-writing technology is definitely useful for writing talks in a religion where everyone is asked to speak in church, regardless of their expertise.

Ken Alford, a church history professor at Brigham Young University, said the technology behind ChatGPT is fascinating and can definitely be helpful for writing talks; but people should learn how it works first, check its responses and add personal experiences.

“I think the trick is we have to learn how to use it because it can do some interesting things, and it has a much wider database than we individually do. The problem, though, is that not all of the information is accurate,” he cautioned.

Alford asked ChatGPT to write a talk on a topic of its choosing. Its choice was forgiveness.

“It’s the genesis of a really cute talk. It’s certainly not a talk that I would hope someone would stop with. But … it’s got some good counsel and some of this text could have come right from a general conference talk,” he said.

What’s missing from ChatGPT’s talks?

Alford said different members giving talks in church meetings is not creating church doctrine, but it is a policy that makes sense when paired with a lay ministry since no one is being paid to prepare a talk or sermon each week.

“It’s a wonderful thing, quite frankly, for members because it provides good experience. It provides variety. It also lets you hear different life experiences and different perspectives. And … especially for the youth, it’s really great training,” he said.

If talks are written only through using AI technology, some of those benefits are missed. Alford specifically said the learning that comes from an author studying for and writing a sermon is lost.

Alford’s suggestion is to develop ideas on the topic first, put those into ChatGPT and add personal experiences and testimony to what it builds — use it as a starting point and not the end.

“If you’re going to use ChatGPT or something similar, use it as just another resource or consider it possible first draft material. Don’t run it five minutes before walking out the door and then get up in sacrament meeting and read that talk,” he said.

ChatGPT, Alford said, will not output a heartfelt personal testimony. That will always need to be added by the individual giving the sermon.

“ChatGPT Is very impersonal, and I think the best sacrament meeting talks are personal. … There’s just no way it’s going to duplicate that because it doesn’t know how you’re feeling about something or what’s going on in your life,” he said.

Alford said it may be a good idea for youth leaders to have an activity where youth write a talk using ChatGPT and the leaders could teach them how to build that into a talk that is ready to be shared from the pulpit.

Problems with ChatGPT’s talks

The goal of ChatGPT is to create something that answers your prompt quickly so it can direct processing power to the next prompt. Because of this, it can quickly find quotes and scriptures. But Alford said the source it finds is not guaranteed to be the best one for the topic. It may also pull in a quote that looks convincing but can’t be found anywhere, or one that is a real quote but has the wrong citation.

Alford said when he asked the AI to write a church talk on the law of consecration, purposely asking for a trickier topic, he said the talk it produced had historical and doctrinal inaccuracies.

“I’m concerned that youth, especially if they rely too much on ChatGPT, may inadvertently let some things creep in their talks that are just not accurate. They’re just not right,” he said.

In one of the responses Alford got when he specifically asked for a scripture from the Church of Jesus Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants, it responded with a scripture from Hebrews in the Bible’s New Testament and labeled it as a scripture from that same chapter and verse in the Doctrine and Covenants.

The talks Alford created using ChatGPT incorrectly quoted Latter-day Saint apostles, but the quotes might have clauses from other church sources and seemed believable.

In one response it created the quote: “Faith is a principle of action and of power. When we have faith, we have a confident assurance that God will fulfill his promises to us.”

The first clause is a quote or near quote from multiple sources on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website, and the second half seems like it could be a quote — but it attributes the quote to a specific talk from church President Russell M. Nelson.

It also took actual quotes and gave them an inaccurate citation. One quote it used was actually said by another church apostle and some were from the same person at a different time.

Future possibilities

Just a few years ago, pulling up a cellphone to search for scriptures, sources and doctrine in church classes was new, and AI in the future could become just as common as that is today — as technology develops.

Alford said ChatGPT and other AI programs are likely to improve, and some of these clear problems in the current program could be solved.

He said AI searches are quickly being incorporated into search engines, emails and programs like Microsoft Word.

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