My wife and I love our local church. But since my wife began her chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma late last fall, we haven’t been able to join on Sunday mornings for worship. Instead, we have the blessing of watching the Sunday sermon on our television while our toddlers run free in the playroom. This is not the ideal option for us, but we would rather have this than nothing.
While many people debate the use of technology in the life of a local church (and for good reason), no one I know is debating the use of artificially intelligent (AI) pastors or robots performing religious rituals. But in many places throughout the world, debate on this very concept is beginning to emerge, and the conversations surrounding AI in religion are beginning to heat up.
As observers look at the technological marvel of robot clergy alongside the rising interest in spirituality among young people, some have proclaimed boldly that AI may be the future of religion itself. From robot pastors to personalized online churches, these visions of the future reveal a disturbing trend and a major deficiency in the way we think about the nature and role of the church body.
The idea of a robot pastor may sound ludicrous to you, and for good reason. But as the technology’s influence continues to grow, we may be faced with the possibility of robot pastors sooner than you think.
In 2017, the German Protestant Church released Bless-U2, a robot designed to dispense blessings in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This robot dispensed over 10,000 blessings to those who interacted with the system.
This was followed by the release of the Mindar robot priest in Japan, which is an adult-sized representation of Kannon Bodhisattva, a Buddhist teacher, that recites sermons at the Kodaiji temple in Kyoto.
Today there is an AI-enabled robot named SanTO being distributed in places like Peru that is modeled after the small figurines of saints in many Catholic homes. This robot is equipped with microphones, facial recognition, and various sensors so that it can be as highly interactive as possible for users. People are able to confess their sins to the robot and even receive personalized encouragement from the Bible.
Many of the proponents for these technologies in the life of religious groups argue that these robots can help engage a younger, more spiritual generation that is enamored by technology. They hope these robots will serve as another way to reach people across the world.
As the conversation about the role of robots in the life of religious bodies throughout the world generates interest, Christians need to examine why we often feel uneasy or turned off by this use of technology in the Church. About 20% of those who used the Bless-U2 robot in Germany reported uneasiness and gave negative comments when asked about their experience. Some argued that it was an offense to God himself and others just felt like they were missing something that you get from a human interaction. Much of this uneasiness stems from a correct understanding about the nature and purpose of the Christian Church.
Christianity is not about information transfer or an individualized experience. At the core, Christianity is a communal faith in a God who sent his Son to die for our sins and create a new community of people by his blood. Christianity fundamentally rejects so much of the consumeristic and individualistic tendencies that we see throughout the world today.
Even without the use of robots or other AI technologies, churches often feel the need to impress potential churchgoers with flashiness and perceived cultural relevance rather than share the clear message of the gospel with grace and love. When many people attend church, they often want to be entertained and leave feeling good about themselves instead of letting God’s Word transform their lives in a community setting.
Christianity is not about information transfer or an individualized experience. At the core, Christianity is a communal faith in a God who sent his Son to die for our sins and create a new community of people by his blood.
Innovations, such as robot priests or personalized AI saints, will likely feed these consumeristic mindsets that already plague many religions throughout the world, including various streams of Christianity. We must fight this urge to transform our churches into mini-malls of individualistic expressions and desires and seek to become the singular body of Christ made up of people from every walk of life, race, and background.
The goal of the gospel is a radical transformation from the inside out as we join the body of Christ. The gospel teaches us that we must die to ourselves and our sinful desires in order to be raised to new life in Christ (1 Cor. 15). A robot may be able to cull data to produce a sermon, select an applicable Bible verse, or interact with you like a human being, but it will never be able to take the place of the flesh-and-blood image-bearers that Christ died to save. These devices may draw a crowd, but they will never be able to facilitate the community that will sustain a soul.
While the Church will continue to modify its tactics to reach the lost and continue to properly embrace many technologies to further its mission, we must never let ourselves buy into the lie that we must save the Church from obsolescence or appeal to every consumeristic fad. Jesus reminds us that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church, and that even includes a host of robot priests (Matt. 16:18).