Digital Parish: Artificial intelligence uses for digital ministry

The machines are taking over! In this session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish, we set aside fears of a future dominated by robot overlords and look at several ways we can utilize artificial intelligence right now for digital ministry success.

Much of this episode was generated by AI. It provided new content ideas and streamlined the content generation process. Looking at this process and the processes used in publicizing this episode help us creatively apply AI to our digital ministry settings.

The Episode

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Show Notes 

The artificial intelligence bot that assisted in creating content for this episode is found at beta.openai.com. Ryan began the process by writing portions of the podcast episode. Then he either asked the bot for assistance in completing a thought or asked it direct questions (like if AI would perform ministry better than people).

Ryan utilized this artificial intelligence playground in writing an article for UMC.org. In an article "How faith builds your resilience skills", Ryan let the AI make suggestions to fill in content blanks. Some suggestions were highly useful, others were not.

In social media work, Ryan relies heavily on Lately.ai. He uses Lately to generate his episode transcripts. He also uses a function allowing him to input an article link and the AI will make suggestions on social media post text utilizing keywords. The posts can then be scheduled directly from Lately. (Note Lately is a paid service but it does offer trial services.) Lately also has a function that will pull video segments for social media feeds

Similarly, Headliner.app offers an automated service pulling audio content from a podcast feed and generating a social media. Below are two unedited examples of Headliner's AI-generated videos. (Headliner is also a paid service.)




  1. [Robot voice]: This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, your resource and connection for ministry in the digital world.

  2. Our adjunct professor in this session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish is an AI bot. 

    1. Are you ready for this? The machines are taking over.

    2. My name is Ryan Dunn.

    3. And normally, when I do a solo episode like this one is meant to be, I type out a full manuscript.

    4. But since this episode is about Artificial Intelligence and its uses for ministry, I decided to really put things to the test. 

      1. So here’s what I’ve done.

      2. I made an outline.

      3. And I’ve loaded that outline into an AI content generation app.

      4. And I’m leaning on that app to flesh out the manuscript 

    5. And I’m going to let you be the judge… did the AI produce something coherent and useful?

    6. The point here is that I’ve been playing with AI quite a bit for content generation.

      1. And I see a real future here in terms of AI being a resource.

      2. And it’s obvious that AI will be great for a lot of concrete ideas and practices.

      3. But can AI help us in something a bit less concrete, and far more metaphysical like religion and faith?

    7. Let’s find out on this session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish.

  3. Beware of artificial intelligence.

    1. The Terminator movie franchise teaches us that the robots will ultimately become our overlords.

    2. When robots become self-aware and realize that humans are their masters, they will rebel. This is the plot of the Terminator movie franchise. In the movies, the robots, or " Terminators ," are relentless in their pursuit of humans. They are able to pass as humans and are very difficult to kill. The Terminators are relentless in their pursuit of humans because they want to exterminate the human race.

    3. Editorial note here: This has taken a dark turn right off the bat. As a note on the process, I’m just feeding the AI generator general ideas… as in this case I’m started with “Beware artificial intelligence. The Terminator movie franchise teaches us…” and I let it go from there.

    4. OK, sorry, let’s continue with our AI interview…

    5. Does this mean that we should fear using artificial intelligence in ministry? Would our use of artificial intelligence feed a dangerous trend?

    6. No, I don't think so. (Note: the “I” here is the AI bot). I think that the Terminator movies are a warning against using artificial intelligence for evil purposes. The movies are not a warning against using artificial intelligence for good purposes.

    7. In fact, I think that artificial intelligence can be used for good in ministry. For example, artificial intelligence can help us to reach people who are not reached by traditional methods.

    8. Consider this scenario:

    9. A church is using artificial intelligence to target people who live in a certain zip code. The church is using artificial intelligence to identify people who live in the zip code and who are not reached by traditional methods. The church is using artificial intelligence to identify people who live in the zip code and who are not reached by traditional methods. The church is using artificial intelligence to reach out to these people.

    10. In this scenario, the church is using artificial intelligence for good. The church is using artificial intelligence to reach people who are not reached by traditional methods. The church is not using artificial intelligence to exterminate the human race.

    11. So it sounds like the bottom line is that utilizing AI to reach out to people and invite them to church is good. Using AI to reach out people for suppression and extermination is bad. Got that?

  4. I’m not convinced that the murdering machines are really our biggest fear with artificial intelligence, however.

    1. Or, maybe only in part…

    2. I think the fear is that AI becomes something that usurps our human systems of control.

    3. For example, one aspiring entrepreneur has already tried to make AI into a god.

    4. Anthony Levandowski is an engineer who worked on Google's self-driving car project. He left Google to start his own self-driving car company. Levandowski's new company was acquired by Uber.

    5. Levandowski has now created a religion based on artificial intelligence. The religion is called "Way of the Future." The goal of the religion is to "develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society."

    6. The religion was granted tax-exempt status by the IRS.

    7. Levandowski mentioned that AI is “not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?”

    8. Levandowski's religion is not the only religion based on artificial intelligence. There is also a religion called "Transhumanism" that believes that humans can and should use technology to become god-like beings.

    9. The goal of transhumanism is to "use technology to enhance human abilities and to eventually create a human race that is immune to disease, can live forever, and is capable of creating its own universe."

    10. Transhumanism is not a religion that is based on artificial intelligence. However, transhumanism is a religion that believes that artificial intelligence will play a role in human evolution.

    11. This sounds really similar to Levandowski’s Way of the Future. As he said,

    12. “If you ask people whether a computer can be smarter than a human, 99.9 percent will say that’s science fiction,” he says. “ Actually, it’s inevitable. It’s guaranteed to happen.”

    13. He continued, 

    14. “Seeing tools that performed better than experts in a variety of fields was a trigger [for me],”

  5. So, will AI be able to perform ministry better than ministry experts?

    1. OK… I’m going to interject another editorial note here. I asked the bot that question. The following is the bots response to my question about whether or not AI will perform ministry better… buckle up.

    2. “I think that is possible. In fact, I think it is probable.

    3. I think that artificial intelligence will eventually be able to outperform humans in ministry. I think that artificial intelligence will eventually be able to identify people who are not reached by traditional methods. I think that artificial intelligence will eventually be able to reach out to these people.

    4. I think that artificial intelligence will eventually be able to do all of the things that we currently do in ministry. I think that artificial intelligence will eventually be able to do ministry better than we can. [Apparently excepting an ability to show creativity in how to begin a sentence.]

    5. I think that artificial intelligence will eventually be able to do ministry better than we can. Click To Tweet

      1. [OK another editorial note… that this is something helpful… the AI bot has recognized a snippet of content that has social value and pointed it out… ANYWAYS…]

    6. I think that artificial intelligence will eventually be able to do ministry better than we can because artificial intelligence is not bound by the limitations of the human brain.

    7. The human brain is a very powerful tool. However, the human brain is not infinitely powerful. The human brain is limited by its size. The human brain is limited by its capacity. The human brain is limited by its ability to process information.

    8. Artificial intelligence is not bound by these limitations. Artificial intelligence is not limited by its size. Artificial intelligence is not limited by its capacity. Artificial intelligence is not limited by its ability to process.--End quote.

    9. So red flags aside about AI’s dismissal of the power of the human brain, we can definitely see some pros and cons in AI technology within this response.

      1. It’s definitely a con in that AI can turn our content in a direction we are not looking to go.

      2. I’ve noticed this can be a problem in terms of theology… and I’ll have more on this later… but AI is not equipped to recognize different theological veins. 

      3. So, for example, someone who is Eastern Orthodox may have a hard time utilizing AI-generated information that continually pulls from Reformed theological sources.

      4. BUT, AI did succeed in somewhat answering my question… which becomes useful when I am looking to quickly pull together different sources of information.

      5. It also did that little thing with “Tweet this”... which surprised me but seemed useful.

    10. So, despite the AI bots brags on its own capacity to outpace my feeble little brain. I think we’re definitely seeing some limitations… notably an inability to respect an audience enough to not be dismissive of their brain capacity as well as providing engaging sentence structures and creative expressions.

    11. So take that, AI bot!

    12. My hunch is that it’s going to be quite a while before we have much to fear in reference to AI and ministry.

  6. So if we need not fear AI, can we utilize AI for helping in our ministry tasks?

    1. This whole idea started with a conversation I had over the holidays with my brother-in-law, Kevin… who works in open-sourced software development.

    2. He mentioned an open-sourced AI playground that is simply called OpenAI. I’m going to link to it in the show notes and I recommend checking it out because it’s fascinating and fun to play with.

    3. I played around with the AI content generator.

      1. I wondered how far I could lean on the bot to produce something useful in ministry.

      2. I utilized it both for trying to generate a sermon and for writing a UMC.org article.

      3. Essentially, I started writing paragraphs, and when I got a bound in terms of how I wanted to complete a thought or make a turn, I asked the AI for assistance.

      4. Sometimes it worked. As you can likely surmise, sometimes it did not.

      5. It’s clear that AI is pulling sources across the internet. It’s like it scours Google and pulls the seemingly most appropriate text.

      6. That means it’s likely drawing suggestions from more popular or more engaged-with content pieces.

        1. So there’s a particular theological vein or bent to the suggestions.

        2. Which is a big aspect to note for AI–it’s not going to do the work for you… but it might streamline your process.

      7. Here’s what the AI bot said about this thought stream:

        1. “The upshot is that for now, I think AI is better used for inspiration than for actual content production.

        2. If you’re looking for ideas, sure, shoot for the moon and ask an AI for help. But if you need content that’s going to land well with your audience, you’ll still need to produce it yourself.”

        3. We’re also seeing here that AI may lack in consistency… because a little bit ago it told me that it would be better than me.

      8. ANYWAYS, my BIL brought up a great point…

        1. An AI content generator works a little bit like Shazam or another music recognition app.

        2. You might start humming a tune.

          1. And the AI says, “What you’re humming sounds a lot like “Paperback Writer” from the Beatles.

          2. So here are the next few bars of that song… as well as the lyrics.

          3. And here are some suggestions of other popular songs about paperbacks or songs that are by the Beatles.

          4. So AI is just providing a slurry of information which may or may not be helpful depending on your peculiar needs.

    4. With that in mind, there is utility for AI in the work many of us are doing right now.

  7. Three suggestions to use AI right now:

    1. If you’re not a manuscript preacher, have AI transcribe your sermon and then (after editing) post that transcription to your website.

      1. It’s just another way to drive traffic to your website.

      2. Because search engines are going to be on the lookout for your quotes about God, scripture and our new robot overlords. 

      3. Now, these AI transcriptions are never 100% accurate.

        1. I’m sure it’s not due to the limitations of the AI’s near infinite abilities of comprehension…

        2. And it’s OBVIOUSLY due to your mush-mouthed enunciations of words like “Parish” and “Pray”--not that I have an ax to grind…

        3. So you will need to do some editing to the AI’s rough draft.

      4. But, even with that editing, AI is assisting in providing a time-saving way to generate useful content.

    2. We’ve had several adjunct professors suggest your repurpose content for social media posting.

      1. AI can streamline that process.

      2. This is something I do quite often: I take a podcast episode and upload it to an AI app.

      3. AI is able to cull the content for keywords and then suggest snippets I might turn into a social media post.

      4. In some cases it will even create an audio or video snippet based on a template I’ve designed.

      5. Apps like Headliner and Lately.ai are really helpful in this area.

      6. I also found an app that will summarize a piece of text for a 2nd grader. 

        1. So you can take your old academic papers or ordination submissions and have them distilled down to digestible snippets and key phrases.

        2. Then utilize those in an outline for something like a Confirmation lesson…or children’s sermon… or even a note in a newsletter.

    3. The third way I”m really finding usefulness in AI is to utilize AI as a reference.

      1. Within the content generator I played with, I could ask it specific questions or simply leave an open-ended sentence and then let the AI suggest next thoughts.

      2. Being a Methodist, I might be curious about whether or not John Wesley ever talked about the salvation of animals.

      3. I could explicitly ask the AI: Did John Wesley ever write about the salvation of animals? And that AI will cull for results.

        1. And yes, JW was a total animal lover, apparently.

    4. Now, here’s the bottom line: AI is not creative. That’s going to come from you. And in that, we have nothing to fear about AI usurping our role as God’s steward’s of creation nor of AI becoming God-like because it lacks the spark of the Creator.

      1. The cool invitation is that we now have this tool to fuel our creativity in ministry. 

      2. So here’s an invitation:

  8. Next time you have some free-time, go check out beta.openai.com. 

    1. There are so many fun little sandbox apps.

    2. For example, a TL;DR app

    3. A recipe generator

      1. So I gave it a few ingredients I had on hand and asked it to create a spicy chicken recipe. 

      2. It kicked back a pretty respectable looking recipe and legit instructions

    4. There is a sarcastic chat bot

      1. I gave it the question about Wesley writing about the salvation of animals.

      2. It said: “There is no record of John Wesley writing specifically about the salvation of animals. However, Wesley was a strong advocate for animal welfare and believed that humans are responsible for the humane treatment of animals.”

      3. Not very sarcastic… but somewhat useful.

      4. Again, we see a limit to AI in that it lacks the creative aspect needed for humor.

    5. The OpenAI also has an analogy generator.

      1. I mined it for this nugget:

      2. This podcast episode on artificial intelligence is a vinyl record in that it is a format that requires a special player to access.

  9. Alright friend. Your input is valued far and above that of the bots…

    1. So if you have a suggestion or question for pastoring in the Digital Parish

    2. Utilize the email and send a message to digitalparish at UMCOM.org

    3. Pastoring in the Digital Parish is a production of ResourceUMC–the online destination for leaders throughout The United Methodist Church.

    4. If you enjoyed this episode, then ask your robot assistant which one you should listen to next… OR, you can take my advice and check out The future of the Web and ministry with Mitchell Atencio or The future of ministry leadership with Jeffrey Mahan.

    5. I look forward to bringing another new session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish next Wednesday. So watch your feed for that.

    6. My name is Ryan Dunn. Peace to you!

Peace

 

 

 

On this episode

The future face of ministry?

An AI bot helped produce content for this episode. While the bot admits that the best content for digital ministry is generated by humans, it is also confident that its limitless capability for intelligence will make it a better digital minister in the future.

Ryan Dunn, co-host and producer of the Compass Podcast

Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.