Brave New Temptation

By Brendan Powers ’23 M.A.R.

Artificial Intelligence has already infiltrated the church. Today, a church leader can deploy Jasper AI to create congregation-specific content for blog articles, social media posts, marketing copy, and the weekly newsletter. For greater fundraising efficiency, a church can pair Jasper AI with Altar, an AI-driven platform that analyzes demographic data and social media trends within the parish to increase donations through personalized messaging. 

There’s a prevalent belief in Silicon Valley that there are two types of people: those who control and shape the trajectory of AI, and those who will live with its consequences.

As AI automation increases in these operations, however, the replacement of human tasks by algorithms could erode vital personal connections that are the heart of a congregation, possibly leading to enduring harm that surpasses the benefits of short-term efficiency and cost savings.

Profit Over Community

The pursuit of increased profits and reduced costs heavily influences the development and deployment of AI today. This trend poses significant ethical questions when applied to church operations. In a New Yorker article last year, “Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey?, Ted Chiang suggests that AI’s primary function is to analyze human tasks with the aim to automate them; AI might soon be used as a more ruthless version of a management consulting firm.  This ambition aligns perfectly with the goals of many in leadership positions who seek to enhance financial outcomes by minimizing costs and dependency on human labor. 

Many church leaders are already familiar with management consulting advice, turning to such companies as the Effective Church Group, the Malphurs Group, the Church Growth Network, or Ministry Architects for guidance in making difficult decisions regarding layoffs and budget adjustments within their congregations. If we take Chiang’s comparison of AI to management consultancy a step further and apply it to church decision-making, it could be very disruptive to a congregation’s culture. Yet there is pressure to do it: AI is not just a tool for efficiency and problem-solving but is also an actor within the larger market narrative of financial optimization. Churches, like it or not, are not immune to these forces. This condition reveals AI’s double-edged sword: boosting church operations while risking community bonds for economic efficiency.

In the corporate world, management consultants have gained notoriety as “Capital’s Willing Executioners,” providing cover for executives making unpopular decisions, such as layoffs, under the pretense of adhering to expert advice. Similarly, AI will appear to provide church leaders a semblance of impartiality, allowing them to deflect blame by attributing controversial decisions to the perceived objectivity of algorithms. By prioritizing operational efficiency over human interaction, AI threatens to upend church-community bonds by obfuscating how technology should be integrated into these deeply human-centered spaces.

The Human Behind the AI Curtain 

Central to the discussion of AI-driven automation in churches is recognizing two pivotal facts. First, implementing these technologies ultimately remains a human decision, underscoring the responsibility leaders bear for deploying these advancements. Second, the imposition of automation without communal consent raises ethical concerns and risks.

To elaborate, it’s important to note that leaders across the business and spiritual sectors actively opt for AI automation—a reminder that behind every technological adoption is a deliberate human choice. Understanding this is vital for confronting nonconsensual automation efforts and tempering the powerful narratives that convince decision-makers of AI’s universal efficacy. Slowing down or halting the “inevitable” use of AI to financial advantage necessitates a proactive approach: when leaders express desires to “enhance efficiency,” “optimize resources,” or “cut costs,” it’s crucial to dissect the financial assumptions and vocabularies that compel these decisions. Like management consultants who advise on organizational downsizing, AI tools market themselves as impartial solutions to these pressures. Church staff and congregants should organize dialogues to uncover and clarify the issues that leaders hope to resolve with AI, allowing for a deeper comprehension of the motivations and marketing promises driving their interest. Congregational involvement makes it possible to propose nuanced alternatives that resonate logically and emotionally, challenging the perceived indispensability of automation.

Transparency and Feedback

The potential benefits of AI in automating routine administrative tasks at church are undeniable–all non-profits can financially benefit from streamlining their operations to be cost-effective. However, leadership must prioritize transparency, clearly communicating the rationale behind automation decisions and their alignment with the church’s mission to advance a culture of inclusivity and respect, opening avenues for feedback and alternative solutions, thereby ensuring that technological enhancements support rather than undermine the community fabric of the church. Through conscientious leadership, the church can navigate the complexities of AI integration, maintaining the delicate balance between technological advancement and the preservation of human connection.

Defying Nonconsensual Automation

There’s a prevalent belief in Silicon Valley that there are two types of people: those who control and shape the trajectory of AI, and those who will live with its consequences. In nonconsensual automation, especially within the sacred spaces of church communities, this dichotomy challenges us to envision a future where a leader’s control and a congregation’s aims are not mutually exclusive but collaboratively defined. 

This technological crossroads beckons church leaders and congregations alike to join the conversation about AI’s future, so that its deployment not only respects but enhances the communal bonds and spiritual mission at the heart of their collective journey. By forging a culture of inclusivity, dialogue, and ethical consideration surrounding the use of AI, Christian institutions can still provide the robust hope that AI can be harnessed to serve the faith’s deepest values rather than undermine them, bridging the gap between technological advancement and the human essence of spiritual community.

Brendan Powers ’23 M.A.R. works in security automation at Palo Alto Networks, a computer and network security company based in Santa Clara, Calif. He was a fellow at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, where he explored how AI can increase civic literacy and voter participation. At YDS, he co-captained the Paracleats soccer team.