AI & the Church: entering the next Industrial Revolution

By Steele Billings

In 1712, an English inventor named Thomas Newcomen invented the first practical steam engine.

It was a simple machine, but it sparked a revolution. Over the next century, innovators like James Watt and Richard Trevithick would refine and improve Newcomen’s design, transforming the steam engine into a technology that would power the Industrial Revolution.

The effects were wide-ranging. The steam engine enabled the automation of manual work, dramatically increasing efficiency and productivity. It revolutionized transportation, as steam-powered boats and trains made travel faster and more accessible to the masses. It even changed the very structure of societal environments, with new factories and cities emerging at a breakneck speed.

The steam engine even accelerated the spread of knowledge by powering the printing press, which was first invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. Steam-powered rotary presses produced thousands of pages per hour which made books, including the Bible, and newspapers more affordable and accessible than ever. As a result, literacy rates soared.

For many though, the emergence of the steam engine led to considerable anxiety.

Talented workers and craftsmen who had spent much of their lives developing their trades feared that machines would make their jobs obsolete. At the time, there was even a secret organization of textile workers called the Luddites who protested and even destroyed machines, hoping it would halt the expansion of industrialization.

In the end, the movement toward industrialization became the new norm. Those who recognized the disruption and integrated steam power into their work, achieved previously unimaginable results. Their purpose was the same, but they adapted to doing it in a new way.

Today, we stand on the edge of another industrial revolution: the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI). Like the steam engine before it, AI is on a trajectory to transform nearly every aspect of our lives, from how we work and learn to how we interact and make decisions. And just as in the Industrial Age, this presents both challenges and opportunities for both Christians and the big C Church.

Know thyself

Whether we’re talking about the steam engine, social media, self-driving cars, or AI, when it comes to technology, it’s helpful to keep in mind that every person adopts new tools differently. In 1962, E.M. Rogers explained this well in his Diffusion of Innovation theory, to better explain how an idea or product — like the steam engine, or AI — moves through the culture. In short, the theory outlines that an idea is usually first adopted by a very minority group of individuals he calls “innovators,” then it moves to a larger, but forward-thinking group called “early adopters,” then the idea moves to “late adopters,” the “early majority” and finally “laggards”.

Regardless of where you sit on the adoption curve, your use of technology should anchor in one thing: how does it help you achieve your purpose in better ways? As ministry leaders, you’re focused on the wellbeing and growth of people, ultimately helping them grow closer to God. And you do that by building relationships — nothing can or ever should replace that.

When contemplating if, how and when to integrate AI into your ministry, a first step might be to explore ways that AI makes your work more effective or efficient. At Gloo, we are already seeing how AI is changing the ministry landscape. Using different AI tools, ministry leaders can turn a single Sunday’s sermon into content and engagement resources for their people throughout the week, create church promotional material, help track church attendance and engagement, and even assist with sermon research.

As AI becomes more ubiquitous in society, leaders have the opportunity to move beyond using AI to create efficiencies and start to ask, “How might we reimagine how we serve our people in even more effective ways?”

Of course, the ethical considerations surrounding AI demand our intentionality and attention. Concerns like data privacy (who gets my data and what will they do with it) and algorithmic bias (who decides what is truth and what isn’t) represent areas where the Church not only has an opportunity, but a responsibility to drive the questions, conversations and even the solutions.

Your people need you

Even more importantly, your people are navigating the same questions about AI. But they aren’t necessarily looking to you to answer them. According to a recent study we conducted in partnership with Barna, only 11% of people view their pastor as being a resource to help them think about AI, and only 14% of pastors feel AI is a very important topic for them to teach on. Just like you, your people vary in how they think about adopting new technology — so what is your role as a shepherd in helping them discern this evolving area?

As leaders, we have a choice to make. Will we, like some during the Industrial Revolution, resist the tide of change? Or will we, like Newcomen and others, seize the opportunity to use technology for good for the sake of our mission?

Here are some ways you can start:

  • Pray for clarity around God’s will for AI in your church
  • Educate yourself regularly on what’s happening in AI
  • Explore ways AI can help you gain missional efficiency
  • Discuss what faithful stewardship of AI looks like with your staff team
  • Guide churchgoers in how to navigate AI responsibly in their lives

In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” Just as Paul adapted to connect more deeply with the culture, the call to ministry leaders is to not sit this opportunity out. Instead, pursue God’s purposes for this technology. Pursue His will for you and why you were called to this generation of change. Pursue new possibilities to deepen, never replace, relationships with God and with others. Pursue bold ideas that spread the Gospel in ways previously thought impossible. For such a time as this, the Church is called.

Steele Billings is the head of the AI & the Church Initiative at Gloo, the trusted platform that connects ministry leaders to resources, people data and insights and funding so their people and communities flourish and their organizations thrive.



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