Updated: Jul 12
- Innovative approach or a desperate measure?
A recent church service held at Saint Paul's church in Fürth, Germany, made headlines as it featured an unconventional twist—an AI-generated experience with virtual avatars delivering sermons. The 40-minute service, penned by ChatGPT, left the Protestant congregation divided, as reported by the Associated Press, with the avatars occasionally eliciting unintended laughter.
The chatbot, personified by an avatar of a bearded Black man appeared on a huge screen above the altar, then began preaching to the more than 300 people. The entire service was "led" by four different avatars on the screen, two young women, and two young men.
The digital avatars spooked some of the church members who chose not to recite the prayers. Some remarked that the sermon has “no heart and no soul”. According to reports, many felt the avatars failed to show emotions, and were talking too fast in a monotonous fashion.
The AI-initiated service commenced with the statement, "Dear friends, it is an honour for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year's convention of Protestants in Germany." The virtual preacher went on to discuss the importance of leaving the past behind, maintaining trust in Jesus, and encouraging the congregation to overcome their fear of death.
Over 300 people attended the service, which was organised by Jonas Simmerlein, a 29-year-old theologian from the University of Vienna. Simmerlein provided instructions to ChatGPT to include psalms, prayers, and a blessing, viewing the experiment as an opportunity to demonstrate how religious leaders could leverage AI to enhance their work. He stated, "Artificial intelligence will increasingly become a part of our lives in all its facets, and that's why it's useful to learn to deal with it," emphasising that AI cannot replace the pastoral role in community interaction. "The pastor is in the congregation, she lives with them, she buries the people, she knows them from the beginning. Artificial intelligence cannot do that. It does not know the congregation."
The AI-generated church service sparked controversy, prompting discussions on the intersection of technology and faith, and brought in some much-needed attention. Perhaps needed, at a time when hundreds of thousands of people have resigned from their memberships in Germany's Protestant and Catholic churches. Fifteen years ago, 61% of Germans belonged to either a Catholic or Protestant church. Today, about 26% of Germans are officially registered as Catholics and 23.7% as Protestants.