Chatbots — Can Christ Be In The Machine?

I recently wrote an article on the Me Too Mentality that is prevelent in most Churches, which gained some comment, particlarly my comment that…

With AI, Chatbots, Blockchain, and Open API’s (to name just a few) there is a MASSIVE opportunity for us to serve our communities and spread the Gospel further than ever.

The challenge was how exaclty these technologies could be an opportunity for the Church, so I thought it was worthwhile taking these ideas one at a time to explain my views of where the Church could and should be using these technologies to further the Gospel message, and support those both already in Church and those who may need its support.

What is a Chatbot?

Wikipedia defines a Chatbot as “a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods. Such programs are often designed to convincingly simulate how a human would behave as a conversational partner”.

I am sure some of you are reading this and thinking that this respresents a further move away from personalised services. Some might find the thought of chatting with a computer repulsive or scary, but I want to tell you that Chatbots are going to represent a big change to the way we interact with companies, brands and organisations.

My prediction (backed by stacks of research) is that Chatbots will replace Websites as the primary interface between the consumer and the companies/organisations within 3 years, and this WILL include Churches, Charities and Not for Profits.

It is not a question of if, but rather when.

Just like the Website boom in the mid 90’s, savvy organisations are starting to build their Chatbot strategies now, ready for the future where the people they are trying to reach will come to expect and demand this different method of interaction.

The first thing to understand about Chatbots is that most won’t introduce new capabilities; instead, Chatbots will centralise where and how customers engage, using social media as an operating system.

I am sure you can see the power in this already.

But where is the Church?

Understandably, my view has been met with some resistance. Most of it is reasonable, as they claim that we are taking Christ out of potential interactions.

That is however, until I show them the protypes I have built that show just effective a Chatbot can be.

The two prototypes I have built look at two use cases; firstly, a replacement for a church website, and secondly, a support Chatbot where people in need can ask for support.

In the former, a church member or someone looking for a church can ask questions like, “What are your beliefs?” or “What time are your services?”. It replies back with text and video to answer the specific question. It is quick, effective and incredibly engaging when compared to a static website, as they are actually interacting with something rather than just observing content.

In the latter, I built a Chatbot that can help provide support for those in need. For example, they can talk to the Chatbot and say things like, “I am feeling depressed” or “I am feel overwhelmed” and it responds with the appropriate level of empathy, and then provides scripture and even a video on how to overcome their particular problem.

Of course this is pretty one dimensional, but for those that need to get support quickly this first level of support can be incredibly reassuring. For those who need further support, however, there is an option for you to jump into the conversation live, and interact with them seamlessly.

Everyone who has seen this has been turned from sceptic to raving fan as they can see the potential to do more than ever to reach those with the Gospel message and support those in need further than they could before as the Chatbot is available 24/7.

Artificial Emotional Intelligence

An example of a photorealistic Chatbot from SoulMachines

This is technology that is available now, but what is around the corner is even more interesting.

The biggest lesson I learnt in building the prototypes was that whilst it was easy enough to get the content together (what it will reply when you ask a question), developing the personality was the most challenging aspect — but also the most important.

A Chatbot needs a personality. It needs the ability to respond appropriately to every interaction. From empathy to directive conversation, the Chatbot needs emotional intelligence.

The work from companies like ExClone and SoulMachines are leading the field in this space, and it is now possible to have a conversation with a Chatbot that can see you and hear you, and respond not just to what you ask, but how you ask it.

It knows when to be sensitive, happy or — if required — assertive.

For me, the Church needs to be looking to build this technology and be at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of where this technology can go, rather than getting into it 5 years after it became mainstream (like we did with websites).

I would love to talk to anyone who is interested in how Chatbots could be used in the Church or missional context, as it is when we come together with great ideas that we can really make this opportunity a reality.


About Digital Church

Here at Digital Church, this is our passion. We want to help Churches recognize the opportunities and then give them the strategies, tools and practical help to put it into practice.

Please do reach out and contact us on hello@digitalchurch.com, if you are interested in how we can help your church or organization.