On 9 June, more than 300 believers at a Lutheran religious conference in Germany packed the pews to take part in what was billed as the world’s first church service designed and presented by an artificial intelligence.

The Reverend Mr. ChatGPT was personified in the image of a bearded Black man on a screen over the altar.

“Dear friends,” he said, “it is an honor for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany.”

The following 40 minutes of music, prayers, and a sermon were the culmination of an inspiration given to Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian at the University of Vienna.

“I conceived this service—but actually I rather accompanied it, because I would say about 98 percent comes from the machine,” Simmerlien said to The Associated Press. 

The biennial convention, called Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, gathers tens of thousands of the faithful to worship, examine their doctrines, and discuss current events—which, this year, included the rise of AI. 

The theme of this year’s conclave was “now is the time,” a phrase that Simmerlein told ChatGPT to work into his sermon.

“I told the artificial intelligence ‘we are at the church congress, you are a preacher … what would a church service look like?’” Simmerlein said. The result was “a pretty solid church service.” 

The chatbot’s congregation “listened attentively,” the AP said, as the AI talked about letting go of the past, confronting the challenges of the present, and keeping faith in Jesus.

At various times, the service was led by AI images of four different preachers, two young women and two young men.

Heiderose Schmidt, who works in IT, was eager and curious when the service began but became increasingly uncomfortable.

“There was no heart and no soul,” she told the AP. “The avatars showed no emotions at all, had no body language, and were talking so fast and monotonously that it was very hard for me to concentrate on what they said.”

“I had actually imagined it to be worse,” pastor Marc Jansen said, “but I was positively surprised how well it worked. Also, the language of the AI worked well, even though it was still a bit bumpy at times.” He also cited the avatars’ lack of affect or emotion.

The avatars kept on solemnly with their sermons even when the congregation laughed at their mistakes with language, making the bloopers even funnier.

TRENDPOST: Instead of rummaging for a theme to build a good sermon around, preachers could use AI to give them ideas. However, that might be the limit of AI’s ability to minister to the faithful.

Spirituality is a human trait, not one that can be experienced by software, which might make it humanity’s last domain, or refuge, in a world being taken over by AI.

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