Will Robots Replace Our Pastors?

robot

(I usually write about God’s hospitality over at my main blog, A Friendly Emptiness, but this topic grabbed my attention and lured me back to this–otherwise unused–blog. Enjoy! –Wayne)

I, like most bloggers, usually focus my posts on the issues everybody’s talking about. Today, though, I’d like to address an issue nobody is talking about—yet.

According to Kevin Kelly’s article in December’s issue of Wired magazine, “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs”, by the end of this century, 70% of today’s workers will be replaced by robots. If this sounds absurd or impossible, remember: two centuries ago, 70% of Americans worked on a farm, doing jobs that have since been all but eliminated by machines. More recently, many factory workers have been replaced by automation. This trend, according to Kelly, will continue into every field over the coming decades:

“The rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic. And it has already begun.”

“Yes, dear reader, even you will have your job taken away by machines… [n]o matter what your current job or your salary.”

My first reaction to these claims was—and I’m sure yours is too—that my job was a clear exception to this prediction. As a seminary graduate and minister, I’m in one of the few fields untouchable by the robot revolution, right? But, for the sake of intellectual integrity (and personal curiosity), I decided to give this question a little honest reflection:

Could pastors like me be replaced by robots?

Let’s break this down by the different tasks and roles pastors fill.

Preaching

An obvious place to start is preaching. A robot couldn’t possibly write and present a compelling sermon on par with that of a human preacher, could it? Preaching is an intricate blend of academic research, creative writing, emotive communication, and artistic sensibility. It’s art and science interwoven; it’s just so human.

Meet the robot journalists of Narrative Science, the computer minds writing many of the sports and business news articles published today, the authors likely to pen over 90% of news stories in 2030.  You should also meet Data, the robot comedian who delivers and adjusts its jokes based on its audience’s response. And Geminoid F, the robotic actress who premiered in her first play about a year ago. And  Vangobot, the painting robot who creates original pieces of art featured in galleries and Crate & Barrel stores nationwide.

Sure, these machines are each drastically outdone by their human counterparts, but this is brand new technology—imagine where they’ll be in 50 years. Take the writer-bot, the comedian-bot, the actor-bot, and the artist-bot, combine them all with a database of musings and presentations from theologians and preachers from every time and place, and you have a machine capable of preparing and delivering a sermon more thoroughly-researched, well-written, and engagingly-presented than the one you heard last Sunday.

Counseling/Pastoral Care

As complex as preaching is, it’s still a public production for a large group of people. Pastoring involves so much more than that; pastors need to be there for the individuals in their congregation, to care for them during hard times and offer counseling when life gets too heavy. Robots might be able to create products—even products as unique as sermons—but they’ll never replace the therapeutic care of another person, right?

Let me introduce you to MindMentor, the automated therapist. By asking increasingly specific questions such as “How did that argument with your father make you feel?” or “Did your marriage have happier moments in the past?”, MindMentor helps its clients work through a number of emotional and interpersonal problems. In under two hours, MindMentor’s average patient found that their problem was “about halfway solved.” Not bad for a therapist who’s only 6-years-old.

As this technology improves, it’ll become easier to imagine a robotic pastoral counselor guiding congregants through reflection and emotional healing. After all, asking good questions and listening well are central to pastoral care, and no person can give undivided attention the way a robot can. This robot therapist could be even more effective in group settings, where it could facilitate disarming discussions without imposing its own bias. And if you have a hard time imagining a robot making a hospital visit, you might be interested in TUG, the robot nurses currently serving in dozens of hospitals around the world. Give them time, and robots might become the first “person” you turn to in times of trouble.

Childcare/Youth Ministry

Ok, so our senior/lead/pulpit ministers might be replaceable, but what about those pastors working with younger congregants? Keeping a room full of 5 year-olds (or 15 year-olds) from exploding into chaos is a skill even few humans possess. Add to that the expectation that these kids are supposed to actually learn something, and you have a job no machine could ever do.

That is, until they develop a more advanced, Sunday School version of RUBI, the robotic elementary tutor who began teaching children Finnish in 2004. After working with students for 10 days, RUBI had helped them improve their vocabulary by 25% (and lost one of its arms in the process). Assuming a Christian version of RUBI could be programmed to teach kids Bible stories and life lessons—and could be developed to take more of  beating from toddlers—parents of the future will be dropping their children off at fully automated nurseries and classes before shuffling into the auditorium to catch RevBot’s sermon. Also, don’t be surprised if your grandkids adapt to your robo-pastor more quickly than you do; after all, they’ll have grown up with them.

Leading Worship

While we’re eliminating pastoral positions, let’s not forget our worship leaders, those creative men and women planning, practicing, performing, and even creating songs for the congregation to sing every Sunday. Nothing cultivates authenticity, passion, and community like live music, and no one puts the “live” in live music like living beings.

Then again, The Trons sound a lot better than some worship bands I’ve heard, and none of them are technically alive. Sure, they’re just reproducing music written by someone else, but isn’t that exactly what a worship band does? Nothing is more distracting in worship than musicians screwing up, but mechanical bands like The Trons play with robotic precision (sorry about that). With DivaBot fronting the band, this robot praise team will get you to “stand up and lift your voices” in no time.

However, if you’re looking for original worship music, perhaps Emily Howell (computer software, not a woman) will write something for you, but you’ll need the Cybernetic Poet to pen the lyrics. Or, you could just type worship-y words into a poem generator, like I did to automatically produce this little psalm:

The Holy One saves like a loving Lord.

Shine majestically like a true Lord.

Majestic, mighty Savior, I lovingly praise a mighty, true You.

The true Holy One! Majestically praise the Holy One.

Not great, but admit it—if the melody was good enough, you’d sing it on a Sunday morning.

Everything Else

Pastoring isn’t just about the big, up-front stuff; if it was, we wouldn’t have offices. There are a dozens of little tasks that fill each minister’s week, more than I have time to analyze. But let’s see if we can knock out at least a few more:

Strategic Planning—connect RevBot to a network of thousands of other pastor-bots worldwide and databases of local and global trends; its 3-5 year vision will always be relevant and cutting edge.

Administration—RevBot is writing sermons; I think it can handle printing bulletins and answering phone calls just fine.

Leading Small Groups—add Bible knowledge and a few key responses (“Good. Tell me more about that.”, “Can you show me where you see that in this passage?”, etc.) to the group therapy robot and you’re ready for a transformative community experience.

Administering the Sacraments—combine this robot waiter with this robot lifeguard, and all of your baptism and communion needs are met! (Note: Catholic and Orthodox churches may need to spring for a few extra features).

Driving the Church Van—let the church van drive itself!

I think my point has been made, but to be explicit: in the not-so-distant future, robots will be able do more, better than any human pastor today. And, they’ll be doing it 168 hours a week (unless you program them to rest on the Sabbath), without once pausing to check Facebook, watching a stupid YouTube video, or getting caught up in some scandal.

How to Avoid Obsoletion

This all raises the obvious question, the pressing question you probably hadn’t thought to ask until today: what can we pastors do to avoid being replaced by robots?

As far as I can tell, there is only one significant ability human ministers have that robots cannot replicate—interacting with God. Although I’m hesitant to speak for God, it seems unlikely that God’s Spirit communicates with machines (regardless of how many times I’ve prayed for God to “make this stupid printer work for once”). Assuming God won’t begin to fill robots with the Holy Spirit, human pastors still have this one unique attribute on the robots.

However, that’s a fairly niche ability, non-essential to day-to-day productivity in most of our churches. Sure, it used to be a big part of the job, but times have changed. As one of my mentors often told me, “If you take the Holy Spirit out of the book of Acts, you’d lose about 90% of the content. But, if you take the Holy Spirit out of our churches, 90% of our activities would continue unchanged.”

To adapt this observation for the impending robot revolution, if you replaced today’s pastors with robots, 90% of our activities would only improve.

So, our only chance to retain our jobs is to change the game. If ministry is about what we can produce—our sermons, songs, and services—then we’re running an unwinnable race against the machines. However, we might have a chance if we lean into our uniquely human relationship with God.

So let’s prioritize prayer more, and spend more time listening for God’s voice. Let’s read the Bible, not just to figure out how we can turn it into a top-notch lesson, but to figure out where God is calling our community. Let’s teach people how to follow God’s lead, and then listen as God speaks through them. Let’s take risks—maybe we’ll see the dead come back to life.

Or, we can continue as usual and let the robots win.

Don’t let the robots win.

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5 Responses to Will Robots Replace Our Pastors?

  1. Katie Norregaard says:

    wayne, thanks for your fascinating thoughts, all that research, and a call to refocus. this is too good.

  2. Katherine says:

    I’m all for a robot that would do year end reports!

  3. Ben says:

    A robot’s ability to excel at strategic planning and always have a vision that is relevant and cutting edge may also be it’s greatest weakness. What will revbot do with the parishioners who resist it’s efforts to impliment change? Perhaps RevBot with Terminator option?

  4. Pingback: Religion & Robots, Part I: Robbie finds God. | Convergent Science Network

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