This article is a thought piece about how artificial intelligence technology (and tech in general) can help Christians fulfill Jesus’ great commission to make disciples from all backgrounds of peoples.
AI technologies that can help us be better people have been steadily advancing into more areas of our lives with ever improving personalization and relevance. For example, during a recent work out with a friend, he casually pulled out an earbud to excitedly share about a new feature he had just experienced. His phone’s voice assistant asked if he wanted to send a follow-up text to a friend–without his pre-scheduling the prompting. He told the AI-powered assistant that he did, especially because his friend could use some encouragement on recovering from surgery. Immediately, the assistant recommended a text message to send, which he confirmed and sent. Amazingly, all this was done within seconds, while he was working out, and required only voice commands from him. How nice that his phone so easily helped him to be a better friend.
The Christian Church (my own faith tradition on which I’ll focus in this article since it is my base of experience) and other religions have benefited greatly from past technological revolutions (the printing press, radio/television, the internet). The AI-fueled revolution will be no different. Creative minds will think of ways to fulfill the mission of the Church in many effective ways. Potentially, the most impactful will be AI tools that help improve and enhance education and training, which is at the heart of discipleship – in the Christian tradition the process of helping someone become more like Jesus.
A half dozen years ago, I stepped out of a career in banking and ended up in the rapidly developing world of digital platforms for church education and training. I worked for a large Bible software company and a SaaS that provides an all-in-one design, learning and teaching platform. Those roles took me into churches, denominations, para-church organizations, seminaries and colleges, and offered a view into how technological innovation is enhancing education and training (and therefore in the church context, discipleship). It is clear that technology will continue to disrupt and innovate discipleship, and AI will only further accelerate this.
The church is ready for technological innovation. The COVID pandemic has forced a mass migration of churches and education institutions into online tools to facilitate worship and teaching. As a result, many church leaders are now much more open to the deployment of new technologies. Even beyond COVID, however, church leaders are increasingly aware of the need to stay technologically relevant and keep up with how people digitally engage many aspects of life, so that the gospel and church communities do not fall behind.
There is tremendous potential to enhance discipleship efforts via AI tools that help us better understand learners and tailor learning content and experiences to them. Teachers are better equipped to disciple when they know their learners well. AI can augment a teacher’s efforts, by accurately and efficiently helping them “know” their learners better; and by recommending personalized, engaging experiences that improve learning outcomes. In this article, we will touch on a few areas of “understanding and personalization” functionality that can be improved with AI including creating learner profiles; matching students and teachers; personalizing content to the needs of individual learners; improving timing and effectiveness of guidance and feedback; and enhancing learning experience using virtual reality.
Like all tools we need to create and use AI in ways aligned with our values and human preferences to ensure it is not abused – to ensure that the focus stays on collaboration and not control. And, given its power and reach, stewarding AI will require even more wisdom and grace…to whom much is given, much is required. A vital key to stewarding these tools well will be earning and preserving trust. That in turn will require strong data and privacy protection policies, transparency around data collection and use, meaningful and informed consent, and careful monitoring to enforce policies and procedures and avoid abuse of the discipleship tools. Anything less will undercut people’s willingness to engage, and rightly so. We need to develop and adhere to privacy and confidentiality guidelines that protect users and foster engagement.
By God’s grace we can steward AI well, and benefit from AI-enhanced discipleship tools. So, let’s explore a few ways AI could be developed to improve learning outcomes, and therefore our ability to fulfill Jesus’ great commission “to go and make disciples of all nations.”
Creating learner profiles: At the heart of discipleship is teaching; at the heart of teaching are learners. We can leverage AI-enhanced marketing, sales and training tools and predictive analytics to help us better understand learners so we can teach them more effectively. AI can be used to efficiently develop accurate, detailed learner profiles and personas that will help teachers better understand their students; and students better understand themselves. By educating and equipping teachers on personality type, learning styles, behaviors and preferences, etc., both teacher and learner are better positioned for success. Corporate training and sales teams understand this and are increasingly using tools like Crystal’s Personality AI to quickly identify someone’s personality type and generate recommended communication approaches tailored to the behaviors, motivations and communication style of the person. We can learn from tools like this, and ideally, develop profiling tools that efficiently create learner profiles and recommendation engines oriented to improving discipleship outcomes.
Matching learners with teachers: God wants us to be in a loving relationship with him and each other. We want to see discipleship relationships flourish, so let’s improve how we match-up learners and teachers (and mentors). AI-powered algorithms can be deployed to match teachers to learners based on permission-granted data analysis that predicts the best student/teacher relationships and learning outcomes. Dating apps have been doing this to facilitate romantic pairing for years, and we can leverage their learnings along with research into teacher / student matching. We can also learn from companies like Altitude Software which uses AI to match contact center agents with customers based on their predicted interpersonal behavior to increase the likelihood of a positive customer experience. An interesting pilot for matching tools could be done at a mega-church, a denomination or a seminary that can develop (always with appropriate safeguards) a robust database of all their teachers and learners (and mentors) and generate recommendations for forming discipleship relationships with the highest chance of relational and learning success.
Customizing learning journeys to individual learners: We have a flood of helpful discipling-oriented content available to us. Great teachers provide tremendous value in navigating through all these options, selecting the right content, organizing it via the most effective mediums, and delivering it to learners in ways that produce the best outcomes. Unfortunately, this process can be time consuming and difficult to apply at an individual level. This is one of the reasons that much education occurs in classes or cohorts that are prepared and delivered via a one-to-many model. It is practical and efficient. Now, imagine a situation where powerful AI enhanced tools can help teachers efficiently and accurately identify content and design learning journeys aligned with the specific profiles, competencies and needs of individual learners. AI can help us develop high-quality, well-curated content that is customized to the specific needs of the individual learner.
Improving the timing and effectiveness of guidance and feedback. The Holy Spirit wisely guides us at precisely the times we need it. And, we do our best to offer guidance and feedback when we think the time is right. Nevertheless, owing to human frailty, discerning when the time is right and what to say can be tricky, and fraught with error. AI’s predictive power can help us in this arena too, by generating recommendations on when, what and how to share feedback based on better understanding of the learner. Marketers and retailers are using the predictive power of AI to create timely, personalized content and purchasing recommendations that resonate most with a given consumer. Let’s apply what they have learned to develop AI tools that help teachers and mentors personalize guidance and feedback that will resonate most with individual learners.
Enhancing learning experiences using Virtual Reality (VR). VR is an AI-powered technology that is immersive and brings a whole new set of tools and environments to the learning process. It can enhance learner engagement and make learning experiences more memorable. We can create realistic interactions in training exercises and workshops around various real world discipleship situations (e.g., being a helpful friend, apologetics, cross-cultural service work). VR can also help improve distance learning experiences by bridging the gap between learners and teachers, for instance by placing them in virtual environments with digital representations of themselves. Teachers can also guide learners through immersive experiences that bring the Bible to life. As noted in an interview in the May issue of this Newsletter, the creative co-founders of the very popular Bible Project are thinking about just that as a next dimension opportunity.
As a faith leader, teacher or mentor, can you see the extraordinary potential for powerful, customized, engaged learning? I hope so! But maybe you’re a little creeped out, too, at the possibilities for abuse enabled by data collection, analytics and deployment. Documentaries like The Social Dilemma and dramatizations like Black Mirror have highlighted how deep knowledge can be improperly used to capture endless attention and choices more beneficial to advertisers than to consumers. We want to engage in collaborative spiritual formation, not enlist people in cults or personality-driven enterprises. Of course, that’s hardly a new challenge for the church – it takes loving care, humility, and a commitment to transparency exactly like the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2.
Let’s be clear – the AI tools I’m describing are being deployed already in the broader world in preliminary forms. So why not leverage the experience of early adopters and deploy these tools to the good end of deeper faith discipleship? But always with sophisticated thinking in advance about appropriately earning trust through wise deployment of safeguards.