Feb 22, 2024

Three Takeaways on How Pastors Can Use AI

Bu header for article on Pastors delegating tasks to AI, girl with binary numbers (0s and 1s) projected on her face

While pastors have differing opinions of the merits and trustworthiness of artificial intelligence (AI), one theme stands out in Barna’s newest data on the topic: Three in four U.S. pastors (77%) agree that God can work through AI.

Many pastors are beginning to see AI as a helpful tool for the administrative needs of the church, and there’s growing potential to use the pulpit as a way to shepherd congregations in the wise use of AI-based tools.

In light of this recent shift, this article explores recent data collected in our AI and the Church study—conducted in partnership with Gloo—to offer three takeaways on how pastors can use AI.

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1. U.S. Pastors Are Comfortable with Some Use of AI in the Church
In many ways, AI is making crucial (but often impersonal) administrative and marketing tasks easier through design, transcription, data and social media tools—and pastors are demonstrating an increasing willingness to use AI in this way. Nearly nine in 10 pastors (88%) say they’d be comfortable utilizing AI within the realm of “assisting in graphic design,” and over three-quarters (78%) are okay using the technology to “assist with marketing and marketing materials.” In the marketing-adjacent realm of church communication, nearly three in five pastors (58%) tell Barna they are comfortable using AI to assist in communication.

BU chart showing how comfortable pastors are using AI for various tasks

Unsurprisingly, pastors are far more cautious when using AI for theological tasks. Only one in 10 pastors (12%) are comfortable using AI to write sermons—though two in five (43%) see its merits in sermon preparation and research, possibly due to the rise in generative AI tools that compile multiple sources of information into succinct lists. Wariness continues as pastors approach the relational realm of their work: Just 6 percent of U.S. pastors say they are comfortable with using AI as a counseling tool.

2. Pastors Are Wary of AI’s Effect on Relationships
For pastors, much of the skepticism around AI centers on how the technology might affect relationships. Nearly nine in 10 pastors (89%) feel AI will have at least some impact on relational quality, with over half of these pastors (56%) saying this impact will be negative. Conversely, U.S. adults are four times more likely than pastors to say they feel that the impact of AI on relationships will be positive (21% vs. 5%), and they’re significantly less likely to say that they feel this impact will be negative (43% vs. 56%).

BU chart showing how pastors are wary about AI's impact on relationships

Going further, there’s significant concern among U.S. pastors that a person could develop an emotional (74% agree) or romantic connection (65% agree) to AI, and few see it as a tool to better human communication—only about a third of pastors (31%) agree at least somewhat that “AI has the potential to strengthen communication in relationships.”

Additionally, pastors are also skeptical of AI’s effect on data security and inequality. A strong majority of pastors (95%) at least somewhat agree that the increasing use of AI raises concerns about privacy and data security, and three in four agree (78%) at least somewhat that AI could worsen current social inequalities.

3. Christians Aren’t Looking For An AI-Expert Pastor
While AI can certainly make a difference in the administrative needs of a church, society’s growing adoption of AI may also provide unique discipleship opportunities come Sunday morning—though perhaps not in the way leaders might think.

Only 11 percent of Christians see their pastors as someone to help them learn more about AI, and just over one in 10 Christians want to hear from their pastor on developing a theology of AI usage (13%) or learning how AI can be used to grow in their faith (13%).

This lack of interest may, in part, reflect a larger movement away from the perceived need of the church’s guidance in Christians’ lives outside of Sunday mornings. It also reassures pastors that they don’t need to become an AI expert overnight—nor ensure their church is on board with all things artificial intelligence. Instead, pastors may want to focus more on guiding congregants on the spiritual and interpersonal aspects of AI, helping them discern when it’s appropriate to use AI and when it’s not.

There are a few interesting outliers in the discussion of the church and AI: Over half of Gen Z Christians (57%) would like to hear from their pastor on using AI in personal communication. Meanwhile, only 14 percent of pastors feel this topic is a very important one to be teaching on, presenting a potential opportunity to disciple younger congregants in a relevant and needed way.

There’s also a desire among older Christians to hear from their church about how to use AI well—44 percent of Gen X Christians and 36 percent of Christian Boomers wanted to hear from their pastor on “using AI wisely.”

God can work through AI—but perhaps not through ChatGPT-generated sermons or über-topical AI Bible studies. Instead, AI can make a difference in churches through its plentiful administrative applications, and through the slow and steady relational work of pastoring, as church leaders shepherd their churches well in ensuring AI is used wisely and not as a substitute for human connection or creativity.

About the Research

This data is based on a survey of 278 U.S. Protestant senior pastors conducted online from January 3–4, 2024, via a consumer research panel. Quotas were set to representation by denomination, church size and region. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied to maximize sample representation, and the sample error is +/- 5.9% at the 95% confidence level.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.

© Barna Group, 2024.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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