Friend or Foe?

By Allen Reynolds ’15 M.Div.

The rise of AI in our lives has been compared to the invention of the wheel and the harnessing of fire.[1] For people of faith, AI raises tremendous opportunities and unprecedent concerns. In this moment, we might regard it as the next chapter of a larger drama the church has been living out since pandemic times. 

Rest assured, if AI can imitate Michael Jackson singing your favorite Beyoncé song on the moon, it can absolutely create Jesus on a dinosaur preaching political propaganda.

The global pandemic pushed faith communities far beyond their previous beliefs and practices, forcing congregations to reimagine what it meant to relate to God and one another outside of regular communal rituals. For Christians, this meant reworking what it meant to be the churchwhen believers couldn’t all be in the same place. Streaming online became a primary way to stay connected to God and community. Even so, untold numbers of churches did not survive the pandemic, or were forced to close shortly thereafter. 

With the integration of AI into daily life, churches face another round of historic unpredictability and soul-searching—but also the chance to clarify again what it means to be the church. Recalling familiar theological categories—darkness, light, hope—we can begin to sort out what AI will mean for people of faith. It’s time for us all to wrestle with it.

Doomsday Possibilities

It is easy to think of reasons to be afraid of AI. Images of robot overlords, technology apocalypses, and worldwide shutdowns come to mind—the possibility of creating something greater and smarter than ourselves that could destroy us.[2] Even if we guide the technology safely and avoid a doomsday scenario, AI will profoundly change how people live out their faith. How will we affirm the value of hope for life when AI-assisted medical professionals, with more than 99 percent certainty, can decide a patient’s likelihood to live? How will we help our neighbors find dignity in their work when companies use AI to replace jobs in manufacturing, the service industry, and data sector by the thousands? Why would people attend church just to hear a sermon, if they can find a better one online for free with AI and tailored to their own questions and needs of the moment? If you can use virtual reality to see Martin Luther King Jr. preach in New York’s Riverside Church, why would you get in a car to go to your local church to hear your pastor? Rest assured, if AI can imitate Michael Jackson singing your favorite Beyoncé song on the moon, it can absolutely create Jesus on a dinosaur preaching political propaganda.

The Human Condition: Unchanged

AI will make clerical tasks easier and enhance congregational outreach. It will allow believers to connect more easily with almost anyone in the world using whatever medium they choose., be it via email, text, social media message, video call, or print letter. Administratively, instead of sending a thousand emails to members about what activities are going on every week, AI will be able to contact everyone about the most relevant events and information without staff having to do a lot of the work. Pastors won’t have to remember what article or book they read to cite in their sermons; AI will supply the information as they write. A church’s online outreach will be able to run itself when someone contacts the office seeking a church that offers childcare, serves morning coffee, and is accessible within six blocks of their apartment—Al will generate all the relevant options in seconds. 

In all these scenarios, some things won’t change. The human condition won’t. People worry that AI will become our idol if it gains more power and understanding than we ever could. Yet people already make idols out of anything. People warn that AI will make us feel like all-powerful gods who can create new technological worlds and who don’t need God. Yet people already feel all-powerful and prideful, even when we finish a Lego set. People fret that AI will make us more isolated than ever if we can be friends with a program instead of one another. Yet people have isolated themselves from society for millennia. 

No Substitute for Human Contact

But AI will absolutely press us to ask critical questions about our theological foundations and what it means to be Christians and live out our faith. I see that as a positive. It will force us to ask: are we seeking a relationship with God and other people, or something else? Do we pursue diversity or will AI give us an excuse to self-select into silos? Facing such questions, disciples of Jesus who make the decision to show up in communities will be more intentional than ever about it. Churches will be able to spend more time doing ministry than doing administrative work. Community partnerships will become more essential and easier to create. Faith leaders’ skills of empathy will distinguish their work more than a show of AI-aided education. Rituals will become even more deeply cherished, because people will discover that an experience of the communion table with AI is no substitute for human contact. Our humanity will be measured not by our productivity or IQ, but by something greater, the image of God we all share.

AI will be more intelligent, more productive, and more powerful than humans soon. In a sense, this will free us: it expands the social possibilities of seeing the image of God in people who have been institutionally undervalued or overlooked, including those who are young, disabled, or are neurodiverse. Faithful discipleship won’t depend on conventional productivity or power. It means we get to be human beings instead of human doings. It means the vulnerable find meaning in their vulnerability. 

AI relies only on the data that is available. If we speak more truth and share more empathy, this will become part of AI’s available dataset. It will become a way to spread truth and hope to people on a scale we couldn’t imagine. AI is a technology. Technology is always a tool. We get to decide how we respond to AI. We need people of faith to use this tool for good or it will be used for destruction. 

Allen Reynolds ’15 M.Div. is an editor, producer, and minister from Chicago. He is Director of Spiritual Formation at University Church Chicago (UCC/DOC) and has served in multiple content roles at UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), the nation’s largest African American Christian publishing and media company, reaching many denominations. 

1. See Mustafa Suleyman, “How the AI Revolution Will Reshape the World,” Time magazine, Sept. 1, 2023. 

2. See Dan Hendrycks, Mantas Mazeika, and Thomas Woodside, “An Overview of Catastrophic AI Risks,”Center for AI Safety, Oct. 9, 2023.