Does your church need an AI policy? I suggest the short answer is no. However, I’m not saying your church needs no policies governing the use of technologies like artificial intelligence—it just needs something more. Let me explain.

Everywhere you look, AI is there. It’s currently built into every major platform, including Microsoft, Google, Canva, Adobe, Meta, Snapchat, Salesforce, and many, many more. In fact, Apple is unveiling how Apple Intelligence will inhabit your next iPhone. Like vanguards of every industry in the world, church leaders are trying to keep up. And that’s an enormous challenge when it feels like this technology is doubling its capability every six months.

Responding to AI Technology

In response to this new technology, many church leaders are advocating for churches to develop an ethical AI policy. Multiple major organizations have already determined and implemented an AI policy. I’ve been a big advocate for churches developing an ethical AI policy. However, over the past month, I’ve begun to change my mind, believing we need something more than merely an AI policy. But, before I explain what we need instead of an AI policy, let’s explore how we got here.

Why Churches Have Developed Ethical AI Policies

I understand why we’ve encouraged church leaders to develop AI policies. Artificial intelligence is a disruptive technology that completely changes how we use—and will use—everything. It’s impacting the economy, medicine, finances, and virtually every major industry and company in the world. It’s like one night we went to sleep in a world driven by horses and buggies and woke up in a world with highways and fast-moving cars.

This fast-developing technology has forced religious organizations to think through the ethical implications of certain activities they previously thought were only science fiction. For example, who would have thought an app could write sermons and blogs, imitate voices, animate pictures, and create words and images from nothing?

It feels like almost every week there’s a new amazing feat AI can now do that we thought was previously impossible. And every AI enhancement highlights the need for ethical clarity on its appropriate use, both as a follower of Jesus and as shepherds of the Church.

Issues with AI Policies for Churches

Although the undeniable growth of AI has brought new ethical questions to light,  I have begun to wonder why churches have tunnel vision about creating AI policies, as if artificial intelligence is the singular potential enemy of the Church and Christianity.By focusing every ethical policy on AI, we could miss how these same ethical principles apply to other areas and use cases.

Here’s an important question: Can you name any ethical AI policy that would only apply to AI and have no practical application outside the use of artificial intelligence? I’ve tried to think of an example and can’t.

Ethical concerns go beyond AI

I’ll give you a few examples of how any concern we could pin on AI goes beyond artificial intelligence.

-Copyright

AI concern. Churches should be careful about the use of copyrighted material in AI.

Bigger picture. Copyrighted material is copyrighted everywhere. Churches should cautiously and ethically use copyrighted images and material, regardless of where it’s acquired (through search or AI generation).

-Replacing the position of God

AI concern. AI should never replace God’s voice in a person’s life.

Bigger picture. No technology, person, or structure should replace God’s voice in a person’s life. This includes Google searches, books, friends, or interpreting life events as God’s direct voice or instruction.

-Plagiarism

AI concern. Is AI plagiarism? Should we not use it if it’s plagiarism?

Bigger picture. Pastors have been known to use entire sermons from other pastors without permission. Churches borrow ideas and themes from other churches all the time. Instead of focusing on AI, churches should corporately explore plagiarism as a topic. What’s allowed and what’s not?

-Privacy

AI concern. What does any large language model (like ChatGPT) do with my data? Is entering my info into an AI safe?

Bigger picture. How are we protecting our congregant’s data within all of our technologies? Are we using best practices when it comes to passwords and logins? What’s our church’s policy on publishing pictures of congregants? How are we protecting our congregant’s data in general? Who gets to see giving information? How is that data protected?

-Imitation + Transparency

AI concern. We should know when a voice, image, or video is an AI representation of a person and not the real thing.

Bigger picture. Is this always true? Has a church staff ever written an email or social post on behalf of a pastor or church leader? Churches should reexamine the idea of representing a staff member in any form. When is it appropriate/inappropriate to represent any communication as directly from a person when, in fact, it’s created by another individual on their behalf?

AI is now in everything

The reality is: AI is increasingly becoming integrated in every online platform we use. It’s no longer a question of if we use this technology, but how we use it. AI is now how every online activity you perform is done more efficiently, sometimes without the user even realizing it. We no longer get to choose whether we use AI. If you are online, you are using AI-assisted or AI-generated technologies. So, our goal now should be to ensure our policies offer helpful frameworks for technology use instead of stringent rules.

Thinking Beyond AI Policies for Churches

Focusing only on AI as a potential ethical concern can keep us from addressing the larger ethical issues facing church leaders. Instead, the development of AI is bringing to the forefront ethical issues and concerns that have long been part of the church.

Instead of writing an AI policy, churches should develop an ethical technology and communication policy. This could be called an information technology policy. As a place to start, I suggest taking your current AI policy and changing every “AI” reference to “technology” or “communication technology.” Here’s what will happen when you do: You’ll suddenly be able to look at all of your church practices, not just your use of artificial intelligence.

Where are all the places in your church where copyright issues come into play? For example, are you using your slides and music appropriately? Are you copying papers and content in the correct way? If your church truly cares about copyright issues, then make sure you’re considering them in every place, not just in AI.

Let’s turn our attention to listening to God. If we want to prioritize direct contact with God over AI, that’s great! But what about all the other ways we could run afoul of this tenet? And are there places we should trust technology over our personal feelings or spiritual impulses?

For example, AI is one thing, but this same principle should apply to Google searches and probably even random Bible verse searches. We should be cautious when looking for God’s voice from random searches, regardless of their origin. It can be just as easy to use a verse out of context or misquote God to back up personal opinions through a search engine as it is with AI.

On the other hand, there are many places we should trust technology (including AI). For example, medical technology can identify cancer, and medical AI technology can reduce human error and identify imagery with more accuracy than humans. This increased efficiency in areas that previously required much more human labor can be a way to steward ministry resources more wisely. Instead of spending hours finding verses or Greek definitions, that time could now be spent accomplishing the ministry activities that AI can’t do, like shepherding or building relationships.

Developing a Technology and Communication Policy for Churches

If you’ve already transitioned every instance of “AI” to “technology” in your current policy, then it may be time to consider adding the following sections:

  • The appropriate role of technology (values that guide us)
  • Ethical communication practices
    • Transparency + authenticity
    • Church service content preparation (sermons, songs, stories, etc.)
    • Creative rights
  • Privacy + Security

Of course, there are many other sections you could consider adding. Some churches may already have established information technology policies or policies surrounding the acceptable use of technology in ministry. These may have been in place for years and simply need to be updated to include the use of AI and other advanced technologies.

Ethical Concerns Are Greater Than AI

If anything, AI has sped up the development of technology by a great deal. This means churches do need to work hard to maintain up-to-date policies outlining the appropriate use of technology. Yes, most of the updates are due to AI, but the policies should focus on the underlying value or principle, not AI directly.

Churches should be cautious about demonizing AI as the main place a pastor can make a mistake. Instead, we need to identify timeless principles and practices that apply to all technologies and communication methods a church may be using now or in the future. Developing an AI policy is a great start, but it’s time to move beyond AI and make sure we are using every technology in a way that honors God and protects our people.