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Church Service Generated by ChatGPT Attended by Hundreds

Arificial inteligence
ChatGPT led a church service in Germany, could this become a new trend? Credits: Flickr/CC BY 2.0.

On Friday, a church service in the Bavarian town of Fuerth in Germany was led by ChatGPT, the popular artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot.

More than 300 people gathered in St Paul’s Church to listen to the Lutheran service that was almost exclusively delivered by ChatGPT. The idea to experiment with an AI-led church service was the brainchild of Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna.

The AI-led service was part of a broader list of events held at a convention of Protestants in the Bavarian towns of Nuremberg and Fuerth. The novel idea certainly grabbed worshippers’ attention and long lines of people formed outside St. Paul’s Church to listen to the sermon.

ChatGPT preaches at church service

Representing the AI during the sermon was the avatar of a bearded black man projected on a sizeable screen above the altar. Another young male avatar was used as well as two female avatars. The service included a sermon accompanied by prayers, psalms and music.

“Dear friends, it is an honor for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany,” the avatar addressed Christian worshippers gathered at the church.

Jonas Simmerlein, who came up with the idea for ChatGPT to lead a church service, said that “I conceived this service — but actually I rather accompanied it, because I would say about 98% comes from the machine.”

The experiment service was part of the biennial Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag convention which is held in Germany during the summer. Every two years, thousands of Christians gather for the convention to pray together and exchange ideas about important topics.

Reception

The theme of this year’s convention was “Now is the time”. Simmerlein asked ChatGPT to include the motto as a part of the church service.

“I told the artificial intelligence ‘We are at the church congress, you are a preacher … what would a church service look like?’” Simmerlein explained.

Attendees had mixed feelings about the use of AI for a religious service. Some worshippers filmed the experiment, whereas others remained silent during the Lord’s Prayer. Occasionally the AI-delivered sermon drew laughter as it delivered its religious message in an emotionless deadpan tone.

“There was no heart and no soul,” commented 54-year-old Heiderose Schmidt, an attendee at the service. “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.”

“But maybe it is different for the younger generation who grew up with all of this,” considered Schmidt.

Marc Jansen, a 31-year-old Lutheran pastor from Troisdorf, was more optimistic about the prospects of ChatGPT and other AI chatbots delivering sermons.

“I had actually imagined it to be worse,” said Jansen. “But I was positively surprised how well it worked. Also the language of the AI worked well, even though it was still a bit bumpy at times.”

Wider debate

Religion poses a new dynamic to the ongoing debate about AI, which has framed recent discussions about nearly every aspect of life in recent months, from healthcare to politics. Religious leaders are now having to consider the potential impacts AI poses to contemporary religious practices.

Writing for Premier Christianity, Andy du Feu advised Christians that “there is space for ChatGPT in preparing to teach and preach, offering some really useful tools. The reality is that Bible software is increasingly fused with AI. But it needs careful handling. Remember the limitations.”

The recent church service in Germany has not been the only religious experiment involving ChatGPT to take place in recent months; other faith leaders have also experimented with AI. For example, a rabbi in New York told ChatGPT to write a 1,000-word sermon for his congregation.

“Now, you’re clapping — I’m deathly afraid,” Rabbi Joshua Franklin recalls telling his congregation after they applauded the AI-written sermon he had delivered, without first telling them that it had been authored by ChatGPT.

However, Franklin believes the technology has limitations. “ChatGPT might be really great at sounding intelligent, but the question is, can it be empathetic? And that, not yet at least, it can’t,” he told Business Insider.

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