By Nicholas Knisely and Kirk Smith

A.I., or Artificial Intelligence, is a topic we are hearing much about recently. Television specials tout its promises and its dangers, while social media users debate its ethical and moral implications. Its advocates herald it as the greatest technological advance since the internet, while some of its chief developers have called it a threat to human civilization. A.I., in its popular forms like ChatGPT or OpenAI, is now freely available to anyone with a computer or cell phone, ready to compose a term paper, guide a doctor with a diagnosis, navigate a complicated work schedule, or even compose a poem. Its applications are nearly limitless. It’s like having one’s very own team of research assistants!

Like all technologies, A.I. brings with its own set of blessings and curses. This is true for any individual or institution using it, even the church. For example, if you have a computer-savvy rector, there is high probability that a sermon you heard recently was written in part or fully by a machine. Recently an entire worship service was written by A.I. for a congregation in Germany. The preacher was an avatar (and the congregation complained the sermon was boring).

What exactly is meant by A.I.? The term is really an umbrella that includes different sorts of technology. Large Language Models (LLMs) are what you hear about in the press these days — they are capable of writing documents in response to prompts, translating language, creating images, etc. But A.I. is more commonly encountered in your new rice cooker, your voicemail transcription service, FaceID on your phone, or the autocorrect and grammar checking of your word processor.


The church has never been quick to embrace new technology. We did pretty well with the printing press at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, which was used to spread ideas of church reform with unprecedented speed to a wide readership, but, with rare exceptions, we Anglicans have let the modern possibilities of technology for mission and evangelism slip through our fingers. Radio and television, when used at all, were taken over by conservative evangelicals, while the internet, until COVID forced us to do otherwise, was largely unused, at least as part of most Episcopal congregations’ regular work. Until 2018, many of our parishes didn’t even have a website! It would be a further tragedy if A.I., with its myriad possibilities for supporting church growth, is ignored.

Sadly, at the time of this writing, we can find almost no published material on how A.I. can be used in church settings. (One exception is the excellent short summary by Carey Nieuwhof, The Ultimate Guide to A.I., Pastors, and the Church, available for free online. The author is part of an online app launched this month by, a large interest group of mostly evangelical leaders; so far no Episcopalians are involved in such efforts.)

As bishops, we believe that our culture is being presented with a monumental technological advance that we cannot afford to ignore, and that by creatively (and sometimes cautiously) embracing it, our congregations can be inspired and our institutions strengthened.

But before suggesting some of these possible uses, let’s take a look at the two major downsides. Some researchers have pointed to possible doomsday scenarios in which computers become so “intelligent” that they reach a point that they become self-aware or conscious. Reaching this “singularity,” machines could become a threat to humans in many ways, a vast field for both science and science-fiction to explore. A recent New Yorker cartoon portrayed two people being whipped by angry-looking robots. The caption reads, “I think this all began with letting autocomplete finish our sentences!”

Another apocalyptic outcome is economic in nature. With more powerful machinery comes greater automation, and with greater computerization comes greater unemployment, or lack of meaningful work. The situation is similar to the experience of the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution, when automated textile technology was transforming their livelihoods as weavers. They reacted by trying to smash the machines that were taking away their jobs. Although jobs will certainly be lost to A.I., we believe that in fact new jobs will be created, as has happened at other times in history when new technology is introduced. That is not to deny that economic dislocation will take place. Parish clergy need to be prepared to minister to those in their congregations whose jobs have been eliminated and who find themselves needing to retrain for different careers.

There are also less serious but disturbing consequences we might expect. Universities are already struggling with the ethics of students using A.I. to write a paper or take a test. Publishers worry about plagiarism and copyright issues. Closer to home, how will congregations respond when last week’s sermon, or annual report, or stewardship letter turns out to have been written in part or in whole by a machine?

But we would like to focus here on the positive possibilities. We offer just a few:

  1. Small congregations with part-time clergy or no clergy at all will have a way to produce meaningful and locally applicable sermons and newsletters with minimal time and no expense. The clerical aid that A.I. can provide will be welcomed in what is likely to be an increasing number of congregations in this category. (Remember, more than 50% of our parishes have fewer than 20 people on a given Sunday morning.)
  2. Local clergy will find A.I to be hugely helpful in writing sermons and letters and the record-keeping that comes with parish administration. We offer the metaphor of A.I. as a copilot, partnering with the priest in parish work, allowing the priest the benefit of more time for personal spiritual growth and congregational pastoral care.
  3. In addition to lifting the workload of church leadership, A.I. also offers the chance for churches to explore new creative outlets of art and music. One priest we know uses the app to create artwork for his weekly newsletter. Got a special celebration on your parish calendar? A.I. can compose a unique hymn for the occasion! Need a logo for your letterhead? A.I. to the rescue!A.I. Does a great job of data analysis. For example, with readily available census data, a congregation can rapidly generate an up-to-date description of neighbors they would like to reach and an effective strategy for doing so.
  4. Translation programs are better than ever before. A.I. allows for instant translation of all your published material into almost any language. Similarly, A.I. allows you to quickly summarize a large quantity of information into an easily understood paragraph or sentence. This can be particularly helpful when creating content on a parish website.

A.I. is here to stay, and in a breathtakingly short time it has already had a greater and greater effect on our lives, both as individuals and as congregations. We can either embrace it and use it for good, or we can ignore it and thereby consign much of our work to irrelevance. Parish clergy must familiarize themselves with this rapidly expanding field, and they owe it to their congregations to explore with them the possible applications of this new technology. Their greatest teachers will be those in their congregations already living and working with smart machines, IT specialists, business leaders, educators, service providers, and, of course, students. A.I. is coming to your church. Let’s work with it to amplify our ability to proclaim the gospel!

The Rt. Rev. Nicholas Knisely is the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island. He was chair of the General Convention Standing Commission on Communication and Technology from 2003-2009. He is a life-vowed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Kirk Smith is the retired Bishop of Arizona, where he served from 2004 to 2019. He was most recently the interim Dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific. He and his wife, Laura, live in Sedona, Arizona.

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