Exercising Wisdom with AI as a Ministry Tool

NRB | May 9, 2024 | Member News

Religious website CatholicAnswers.com recently ignited debate among its audience with “Father Justin,” an interactive, 3D AI avatar designed to answer questions about Catholicism. While their goal was to offer “faithful and educational answers,” in a platform that was “authoritative yet approachable,” concerns arose about portraying the AI character as a priest. They quickly rebranded the character as just “Justin.”

“We won’t say he’s been laicized, because he never was a real priest,” the company wrote in a follow-up statement.

The “Father Justin” incident highlighted widespread interest in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in religious or discipling contexts. NRB member Wisdom International, a Bible-teaching broadcast ministry led by pastor Stephen Davey, understands these concerns.

Back in February, Wisdom International announced their own foray into AI with “WisdomA.I.,” a chatbot embedded on their website. Users can interact with the chatbot by typing questions related to the Bible. In response, WisdomA.I. generates multi-paragraph answers with hyperlinked timestamps referencing specific points from YouTube videos of Stephen Davey’s teachings.

Alongside the announcement, Wisdom outlined a commitment to responsible AI usage with an “internal code of ethics.” This code emphasizes that AI will not be used for tasks to create new content, interpret the Bible independently, or replace human creativity.

Scott Wylie, executive director of Wisdom International, acknowledges the concerns some Christians hold about AI. He reported receiving some negative user feedback about receiving Bible content from something without a soul. Wylie underscores that AI is essentially a complex computer program, morally neutral at its core.

“It can be a tool for good or bad,” he clarifies. “Christians need to be careful with all their technology, not just AI.”

What makes WisdomA.I. unique is its data source. Unlike other chatbots, it doesn’t draw from the vast pool of information available online. Instead, Wisdom International partnered with Pastors.AI to train the chatbot exclusively on Stephen Davey’s YouTube content. The key is that the chatbot will answer only what comes from their organization’s data. This ensures users only receive information directly tied to Davey’s teachings. Pastors.AI currently provides many features for churches, but Wisdom International is the first broadcast ministry on their platform.

“If we’re going to publish something publicly, I think that we need to maintain a level of trust with our audience,” Wylie said.

If a question falls outside the scope of Wisdom International’s content library, the chatbot won’t try to fabricate an answer. Instead, it delivers a transparent response: “Sorry, I can’t find the answer in Stephen’s teachings.”

Another concern is the potential for AI to replace not just human creativity, but human interaction.

“I do think it’s a danger for especially churches where community is a main characteristic of what it means to be a church,” Wylie said.

While acknowledging this possibility, Wylie believes the chatbot serves a worthwhile purpose as an efficient tool that provides targeted answers instead of requiring users to sift through links. By capturing all the details expressed in a single question, the chatbot can deliver a comprehensive answer compiled from Davey’s teachings.

Wylie predicts that this function of AI—providing summary answers rather than a list of links—will become the norm for search engines across the internet. Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) is an example of this technology in use. Wylie pointed out AI has been involved in our lives in other forms for decades, such as the spell-check tool on most digital platforms.

“If you’re going to have a search bar on your website, you’ve already gone a little bit down that path,” Wylie said.

While their current focus is the website chatbot, Wisdom International has even more ambitious AI plans. They’re exploring the possibility of creating an AI avatar with the ability to translate and present Stephen Davey’s teachings into their target audience’s native languages. Their goal is to translate into 100 languages the entire “Wisdom Journey” podcast, a three-year program of daily Bible studies led by Stephen Davey.

Translating three years’ worth of daily episodes into all target languages is beyond the scope of their current resources. This is where AI comes in. Wisdom International is partnering with HeyGen, a company specializing in creating custom AI avatars. HeyGen allows users to choose pre-made avatars or upload their own video content to generate an AI speaker to replicate the speaker’s movements, voice, and behavior.

While Wisdom International recognizes the potential of using an AI avatar resembling Stephen Davey, they’re still evaluating this option. Another possibility is creating different avatars to correspond with the languages spoken.

Human oversight and discernment remain crucial. Wisdom International emphasizes that humans will always be involved in the actual translation process. They won’t rely on machine translation services like Google Translate or GPT-4 for the final product. Instead, they’re partnering with NRB member TWR International to secure human translators for accurate script translations—helping ensure that they communicate truth, not just data, to the hearts of listeners and viewers.

In 2024, NRB’s board of directors approved a resolution urging Christians to exercise responsibility and wisdom in utilizing AI and other emerging technologies. Read the full board resolution here.

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