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Can Robots Replace Pastors?

Mal Fletcher
Added 31 July 2019
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Will AI Make Church Leaders Redundant?

In May 2017, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, German technologists introduced a robotic priest. They christened it BLESS U-2.

It was a very rudimentary entry into the burgeoning field of robotics: you pushed a button and received a spoken blessing. The designers’ goal, however, was much loftier than their creation suggested.

They wanted to spark a debate on whether machines might one day replace pastors and priests.

Much is spoken and written about automation, industry 4.0, smart cities and the like. Most of it struggles to keep up with developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Every week there are announcements about potential breakthroughs in medicine, manufacturing, building and even the arts, which involve sophisticated robots.

Many church leaders will struggle to see the relevance of this to their calling and day-to-day work.

I addressed that very issue in a keynote to a London summit entitled Robotics and the Church. I reminded people that artificial intelligence and robotics are already adding value to the human experience.

For example, they’re helping to design advanced prosthetic devices that can be more accurately fitted to the human body.

Meanwhile, wireless mind-machine connectivity offers great benefits for people whose movement has been restricted by strokes and other conditions.

In the workspace, robots will potentially reduce the number of routine tasks human beings carry out. This may free people to spend more time on more rewarding tasks, such as formulating new ideas.

Along with the potential benefits, though, there are clear challenges ahead. Projections suggest that up to 800 million jobs will be automated in the next 15 to 20 years, on a global basis.

One study suggested that 40 per cent of current jobs in Australia will be automated in that time. We’re not talking here simply about jobs involving manual labour. Robotics will radically impact high-end occupations, too.

Already, AI-driven systems are changing the practice of law, medicine, journalism and even symphonic composition.  

Of course, every new technology gives rise to new types of human employment - that is the record of history. (Before the printing press, nobody worked as a type-setter.)

The challenge of our time, however, is the sheer pace of change. Will people be able to transition quickly enough, not simply from one job to another, but from one entire livelihood to another?

This is where things start to get interesting for church leaders.

Influence is born out of our capacity to consider and engage the likely future before it happens.

There is only One who can definitively predict the future. Yet we are blessed by Him with the capacity to identify likely emerging needs, given current developments we see around us.

We do this using curiosity, imagination, experience and a heart that recognises that all the earth is the Lord’s and he is vitally interested in every aspect of it (Psalm 24:1).

We do it by adopting Israel’s commitment in the time of Nehemiah, to work for “the common good” (Neh. 2:18b NRSV). In our case, that means working for the benefit of the wider humanity, doing good for those who aren’t interested in our core message, or who won’t repay us in kind (Luke 6:32-36).

Church leaders can engage and influence the era of automation in several important ways.

Pastors can launch programs to teach people transition skills. A leader might, for example, adapt principles used in cognitive behavioural therapy (some of which reflect biblical principles anyway).

These or other mental and behavioural skills can be taught in small groups, which cater to people who are going through employment transition.

They could also be offered to university students. (The many students I speak to are already aware that they’ll face several career transitions.)

Church leaders can also teach practical measures for protecting privacy. In the past few years, several Big Tech companies have issued warnings about their smart devices.

Smart-TVs, smartphones and other voice-enabled gadgets are now able to record private conversations. They store these recordings online, where hackers can access them and use them for identity theft.

Church leaders can also teach people how to be proactive about future change in general.

In my experience, as both a minister and a futurist, when it comes to the future people need hope even more than information.

That is not to say, though, that informing people about emerging change is useless - far from it. Faith is always well-informed because it is born out of and motivated by the pursuit of truth.

We must train people to take practical steps in positively engaging change, because, as someone has said, “hope alone is not a strategy”.

There’s one more thing Christian leaders can do in the face of a growing reliance on AI and robotic devices. It relates to that question: “Can a robot do the work of a pastor?”

If by “work of a pastor” we mean running a church service, perhaps the answer is, yes. That’s certainly true if the service is highly mechanical and liturgical.

If, however, we mean articulating and modelling empathy for human beings; if we mean using that empathy to devise strategies for change in the community, then the answer is a resounding, no.

Empathy is one human skill robots will never master. To empathise is to place oneself in the shoes of another. It is to apply imagination and experience to help oneself feel what another person is feeling.

Empathy requires shared human experience. This, by definition, is the one thing a robot cannot have.

Today, social bots in Japanese aged care homes can emulate human emotion.

Robots will soon be even more “intuitive” and responsive then they are today. Yet empathy will still elude them, for emulating emotion is not the same as truly sharing it.

As we place more emphasis on the empathic sides of our work - in our contacts with people, our leadership and our preaching - we can bear witness to what makes people truly human.

We can help people recognise that while machines might emulate us, we remain unique creatures under God’s heaven. 

Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2019. First published at

Keywords: social media | robots | robotics | robot priest | robot pastor | church | church leadership | industry 4.0 | smart cities | artificial intelligence | ai | ai and church | technology in church | technology

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