I used to think that “church” was the weekly event where we all sang songs together and had communion and listened to Bible teaching from the pastor, and all the other relational stuff – the small groups, the dinners, the Bible study meetings – were there to support the Sunday stuff.

But now, instead I believe that all the relational stuff IS the church, and Sunday morning is “merely” an event that is supposed to support the relational stuff. That larger event is important, sure, but it’s not even close to the main thing.

Today I read an article about a sermon generated by the ChatGPT AI system and read to his congregation by a New York rabbi. It was so well-worded that a New York Jewish congregation assumed it had been written by a famous British rabbi.
https://www.jpost.com/jpost-tech/business-and-innovation/article-729095

More than being impressed by an AI system’s ability to write high-quality prose good enough to pass as a human-written sermon, I’m struck by what that says about our American church culture.

When you think of a rabbi or pastor primarily as someone who preaches an erudite and polished sermon during their weekly congregational service, it’s perhaps easy to wonder, as this article asks, whether you can have a “robot rabbi” someday.

But let’s think about the definitions of “pastor” and “rabbi.”

To a faithful Jew, “rabbi” is simply the Hebrew word usually translated “teacher.” In Biblical times, it had a specific meaning of an honored teacher who had been trained in a certain manner by close discipleship to an older rabbi, through being their hand-selected disciple for several years of one-on-one training. Today, “rabbi” also carries the context of a religious leader of a group of Jewish believers, although in Biblical times most rabbis were itinerant teachers who traveled from town to town, instead of directly managing a single local assembly of Jews.

From a Christian Biblical perspective, “pastor” is closely related to the words “shepherd” and “overseer.” A pastor must be be well-suited to care for his or her “flock” – those who hear his voice of leadership – as well as being able to teach. This was a bit of a departure from Jewish thinking – the pastoral role ceased being a wandering teacher, and became one who was intimately involved in the lives of those who the Lord had given them to shepherd. Naturally this involved oversight, to ensure that the flock’s needs were met, both physical and spiritual.

But in modern times, many Christians seem to view “pastor” as the person most likely to preach a sermon from the pulpit, being the visible face of the church, in addition to overseeing the organization of believers. It’s become less about shepherding and more about visibility (some would say, celebrity in megachurches) and being the one who is in charge of the flow of teaching and spiritual direction for the entire congregation.

That modern view certainly fits the needs of the Western church model, where someone needs to be “in charge,” both spiritually and organizationally, and where (commonly) there needs to be a single point of contact for doctrine and visibility. (Exceptions of course do exist, such as “plurality of elders” churches where responsibility is spread among the trusted leaders of the church. But that is fairly rare, especially in evangelical churches.)

But is that “spiritual CEO” model really what God designed for His people?

I’d argue that it isn’t Biblical. Aside from having no clear Biblical examples to back it up, I see the following risks in such a model:

  • There is a “star” in the church. It creates a structure where the church “personality” revolves around one person (usually a male) and their personality and charisma.
  • There is a single person who decides what is the Lord’s will for that church. While elders may be appointed to help provide accountability, it still sets up a situation where there is “the Lord’s anointed” leader.
  • As the pastor becomes more and more visible and important to the life of that church, it becomes harder and harder to truly speak correction. There have been many major churches that self-destructed when their highly-visible pastor fell into sin or became a poor model of Christ.
  • When a congregation learns to fully submit their spiritual life to one person, they stop expecting to need to seek the Lord so completely for their own spiritual life direction and mission.
  • When a congregation learns to expect one person (or a small team) to provide their spiritual nourishment each week, they become consumers instead of producers. The congregational members stop expecting the Lord to speak personally and individually to them each week, and worse, they stop expecting the Lord to use them every week to feed those around them. They trust the pastor to do this for both them and others around them.
  • It creates a single point of failure for the church. The unexpected retirement or resignation or death of the pastor creates upheaval.
  • It creates difficulty even in smooth planned transitions, because the entire personality of the church must shift to match the new highly-visible leader, and some members will be unwilling to make that shift.
  • The large-scale Sunday-morning sermon is really not the best time to provide teaching that changes lives. It can be a great tool for sharing vision, but those life-changing moments are very much more likely to occur in small groups with intimate conversation, where the Holy Spirit in each believer brings the Scriptures to life for each other. But too many churches depend almost exclusively on the Sunday morning sermon as the main Bible teaching.

In short, there are a lot of ways which the current American, or more broadly the Western, modern church model doesn’t look very Biblical and can cripple the growth of individual believers.

But so what?

Well, in this case, let me get back to the topic of AI-generated sermons…

It seems to me that if you properly recognize that a pastor ought to be primarily someone who cares for a flock, not a sermon delivering orator, or a highly-visible CEO and visionary star, then that weekly message should be far from the most important part of their mission. In that context, the idea that a robot could ever do a pastoring job just because it can write a good sermon is inherently silly.

In fact, I stipulate that we could really skip the whole Sunday (or Saturday) morning sermon entirely and still call it “church,” because the real learning and internalizing the message probably ought to be happening in those intimate small group environments, where everyone participates and shares and hears from the Holy Spirit resident in each other. That just can’t effectively happen with a few hundred folks in a big sanctuary passively listening to a message – whether written by an AI chatbot, or carefully crafted by the pastor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this situation isn’t universal. Many churches really don’t have what I grew up with as a “sermon” – they have a short homily, not many minutes long. That idea is quite alien to my own recent church experience, where an hour or longer didactic scripture-filled message was quite normal. But plenty of churches, mostly mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, intentionally don’t do that. They have no long sermon, and instead only include a short homily. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for the homily to be simply read from a book of common prayer, requiring no specific writing from the pastor. And in those churches, the pastor or priest isn’t the star of the show – they just facilitate the worship, and then get back to the main work of shepherding their flock for the rest of the week.

A complaint lodged against such homily churches by evangelical churches that focus on extended Bible teaching sermons each week is that it’s kind of pointless, with no real focus on Biblical instruction each week. The attendees are just “checking the box,” but don’t stay involved during the rest of the week. Such long-sermon churches insist that those mainline churches are just full of lukewarm Sunday-only attendees, not true believers. They argue that powerful teaching sermons full of Bible verses are the only way to ensure that people are taught proper doctrine.

But I would ask, where is the fault? If someone isn’t interested in “pressing in” to the Lord, what of it? As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can provide opportunities for deep Bible learning and close-knit community, but it’s up to the individual to take advantage. If any church has a large number of casual Sunday-only attendees, then the pastor cannot fix that by preaching a longer or more Bible-verse-loaded sermon. That only really gets fixed with discipleship and personal interaction, drawing people into a living relationship with Jesus via the Holy Spirit.

So while I used to be one who disparaged the short homily as a wasted opportunity, I realize now that my criticism was based on an unhealthy view of “church,” as a mass-conversion and mass-reeducation venue. I didn’t understand that only through intimate discipleship are people usually brought to maturity in the Kingdom. And so now, I tend to believe that mass-sermon-focused churches are probably actually having the opposite effect as they intend: I personally suspect that they give more people an excuse to avoid maturity, than they actually bring to maturity.

The real value of church is not those two hours of Sunday service; it’s the stuff during the other 166 hours of the week that really matters. And the sermon is ultimately a tiny part of the value.

So an AI-crafted sermon doesn’t scare me. What really concerns me is that any Scripturally-grounded Christian or Jew could even ask if eventually a pastoral job could be filled by a robot or AI.

If anything, an article like this AI-generated sermon is proof to me that years of listening to extended Scripture-heavy sermons didn’t produce a faithful believer that understood what a pastor or rabbi is really supposed to be.

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