The other day Darrel, my resident computer guru and social media ninja, waved me into his office. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to his computer screen. On the screen was a sermon manuscript written by me – or, rather, written by a computer program using all my previous sermons. The sermon sounded like me — sort of. The phrasing and word usage were familiar, but they weren’t mine. The sermon text wasn’t me.
They were my words, picked up from previous sermons and other writings and pulled together into this one document by the AI program. Darrel was pretty proud of himself. “You can be replaced,” he said. “By a machine.”
According to our science fiction authors, there will come a day when we will all be replaced by machines. No one will work at a bank in the future. Our financial transactions will be digitized and done entirely on computers. The day will soon come when we no longer actually touch money.
Teachers will be replaced by pre-taped videos and programs that students will watch from their phones and iPads at their convenience. In the future, we won’t have school buildings. We’ll have terminal stations for students to use.
Pilots, Uber drivers, factory workers, mechanics, maintenance workers, restaurant servers, and cooks – all of us will be replaced by machines and humanoid robots.
That’s what we’re being told, anyway, but I’m not buying it.
Computers will be able to do a lot of things – a lot of things that I will be glad they do – but they will never be able to be human. I’m reminded of the story of a little old lady who would never use the ATM machine. When the bank manager asked why she always came into the bank and did her banking at the counter, she said, “Because the machine doesn’t ask me how my arthritis is doing.”
And it’s the same with preaching. AI will never be able to preach a decent sermon. Why? Because the gospel is more than words. It’s the evidence of a changed life. Remember when John and Peter were brought before Sanhedrin and told to stop preaching in the name of Jesus? The Sanhedrin concluded that John and Peter weren’t educated or not even that smart, but they had indeed been with Jesus.
Here’s what most of us forget about preaching. When listening to a sermon, what a congregation is looking for is evidence that the pastor has been with Jesus. An authentic sermon is filtered through Scripture, good theology, and the pastor’s own testimony. Does this pastor know Jesus? Have Jesus and the pastor talked lately? And this sermon – has the pastor lived these words? Does the pastor know the truth of this passage from their own experience or are they taking someone else’s word for it?
AI will always have to – literally – take someone else’s words for it. AI may put the sermon together in a cohesive manner. The grammar may be correct and syntax laid out according to the rules, but it won’t ever be a sermon that will convince anyone to come and follow Jesus.
For that to happen, more is needed than words. An encounter with Christ is required. An encounter that, like Paul, stopped us dead in our tracks, turned us around, and sent us back to our friends with the news that Jesus can change our lives. There is an urgency to this kind of preaching. There is a truth that can be heard, but not ever explained.
The best moments of the sermon preparations aren’t when the commentaries are opened or the Greek or Hebrew words have been accurately translated, but when the pastor’s life is opened up in the presence of the Living Christ and His Spirit does what only the Spirit can do in restoring and transforming the pastor’s life more and more into the likeness of Christ. Until this happens, there’s no sermon. There are only words.
The Word must be in the pastor. The Word must be in the sermon – otherwise, it’s not preaching.
And honestly, AI will never be able to do that.