The Robot Will Pray For You Now
There is a certain irony in using a blog post to communicate concern about ministry through technology. As I transition from a traditional local pastor role into an extension ministry role that will rely in large part upon technology and the internet, this blog post is likely the first of many thoughts along these lines. Today’s post is primarily a response to the new blog post up at UnSeminary.com, which is a thought experiment about using artificial intelligence for pastoral care.
Let me first say that I love the work Rich Birch does through UnSeminary. I am a subscriber to his podcast and audio blog, and he regularly provides many great ideas and practical tips about things they truly don’t teach you in seminary. Let me say secondly that his post is truly a thought experiment, using the words “might” and “could” a lot. I am all for thought experiments and will likely post many in the future, so I am hoping to respond with the kind of spirit others will use when disagreeing with me.
All that being said, I had a very immediate and gut-level reaction to this concept. In the post, Rich references a Planet Money story about soldiers with PTSD preferring “robot therapists” to human therapists. He considers the value and reach of Cleverbot, an artificial intelligence application that is often mistaken for a human in blind tests and is carrying on an average of 80,000+ conversations at a time online. He then asks if the church could utilize this technology in the areas of pastoral care and discipleship.
My immediate and gut-level reaction was: What about incarnation?
The primary thrust of his thought experiment seems to be about quantity and efficiency. He asks, “At what point will we use artificial intelligence to extend and scale our human abilities to care for one another?” If artificial intelligence could be programmed to listen, understand, and ask the right questions to help someone move forward, it could be deployed in vastly larger numbers for significantly less cost than a human pastor or therapist. Theoretically, it would also free up the human pastor to do more work that only they can do.
But, outside of the handful of miraculous feedings, how many times did Jesus try to meet as many needs as possible in as short a time as possible? When Jesus left a town, there were still people who were hungry, sick, and broken. Jesus had the ability to heal people from a distance, yet Jesus most often went to those in need. One might argue that Jesus had a larger mission, and the ministry to individuals was simply to reveal himself as the Messiah and set an example to the future church. However, that larger mission of salvation cannot be separated from the concept of the incarnation. Jesus had to come in the flesh. It mattered then, and it matters now.
Adam Hamilton, the pastor of one of the largest churches in my denomination, always emphasizes incarnation when he speaks about pastoral care. Whether it be in hospital visits or the dropping off of food baskets at the holidays, he shares that he always tries to say something along the lines of: I am here in person to remind you that Jesus loves you, he is with you, and he has not forgotten about you.
This thought experiment is ultimately more about our understanding of pastoral care and discipleship. No doubt, there is value in a pastor working with someone whose need is more clinical, however if the problem can be “solved” by simply encountering the right string of questions or quoting the preprogrammed Bible verses, then was it really pastoral care that they needed? The academic aspects of discipleship are important, as we are called to love God with our minds, but a life of faith is always about more than just what you know. The value of pastoral care and discipleship is ultimately derived from the beauty and power of incarnation.
Lastly, Rich wraps up the post by asking whether the church will embrace the benefits of technology or reject it and rely on the inefficient way things have always been done. This is a false choice. This is not a question of whether we will trade in a sharp rock for power tools, but rather of what we ultimately believe about the incarnation and its role in pastoral care and discipleship. I am all for technology amplifying and extending what the Holy Spirit does in and through us, but I have a hard time with the idea of technology replacing the human vessels in which that Spirit dwells.
Image by Flickr user Gonzalo Malpartida. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited from Original.