AI plays god: ChatGPT delivers its first sermon

"Rise from the pews and praise the lord," said ChatGPT.
Sejal Sharma
Representational image
Representational image


Something extraordinary happened at the St Paul church in Germany’s Fuerth town on Friday. ChatGPT took center stage and led a unique service, which included 40 minutes of prayers, music, and sermons.

“Dear friends, it is an honor for me to stand here and preach to you…,” said the artificial intelligence chatbot in front of a congregation of 300 people. People lined up outside an hour before the AI church service began.

An avatar of a black man was displayed on a giant screen above the altar. The entire service was led by four different avatars: two young women, and two young men, reported the Associated Press.

The idea was conceived by Jonas Simmerlein, a 29-year-old theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna. “I conceived this service — but actually I rather accompanied it, because I would say about 98% comes from the machine,” Simmerlein told AP.

‘Rise from the pews and praise the lord,’ said ChatGPT

The convention of Protestants called Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, which takes place every two years, is a movement of people brought together by the Christian faith and commitment to the future of the church and the world.

The convention, apart from discussing their faith, also talks about current world affairs. This year, the focus of these discussions was around climate change, the Ukraine war, and AI.

Simmerlein said that he got ChatGPT to include psalms, prayers, and blessings in its sermon by asking the chatbot: ‘We are at the church congress, you are a preacher … what would a church service look like?’”

Mixed reviews

As ChatGPT parroted the church doctrine, there were a few in the audience who were impressed and took videos of the event, but for an avid church-goer, ‘there was no heart and no soul’ in the sermon.

“The avatars showed no emotions at all, had no body language, and were talking so fast and monotonously that it was very hard for me to concentrate on what they said,” said 54-year-old Heiderose Schmidt.

Whereas a 31-year-old pastor, Marc Jansen, brought with him a group of teenagers to experience the AI-led sermon at St. Paul. “I had actually imagined it to be worse. But I was positively surprised by how well it worked. Also, the language of the AI worked well, even though it was still a bit bumpy at times.”

Schmidt’s apprehensions were echoed by Simmerlein as well. He expressed that a human pastor is part of a congregation in the sense that the pastor lives with the people, buries the people, and knows them from the beginning. An AI can’t do that.

But in the same breath, Simmerlein acknowledged that AI is everywhere and will be a significant part of our lives in the coming times. “And that’s why it’s useful to learn to deal with it.”