South Korean Christians turn to AI for prayer
Pastors welcome the time technology frees up so they can spend longer with followers but caution against overuse
Online church services using artificial intelligence are rapidly becoming an essential part of worship in Korea, where Christianity is the biggest religion, as tens of thousands turn to chatbots and audio bibles for spiritual sustenance. This year, local start-ups have launched generative AI bible study and prayer service apps, which in particular pull in young Protestants. Pastors have welcomed the time the technology frees up for them to take care of their flock, who account for about a fifth of South Korea’s 52mn population. But they are also conscious of the need to maintain the human touch and have cautioned against relying too much on the latest technology for religious activities.
Awake Corp, the developer of ChatGPT-based bible chatbot service Ask Jesus — now rebranded as Meadow — has since its launch in March attracted about 50,000 users, including 10,000 from outside Korea. The app has drawn Christians in Muslim countries such as Pakistan as well as in the US and other western countries. The service responds to inquiries on spiritual matters and day-to-day issues with bible verses, interpretations and prayers.
The app has generated interest from churches and pastors, who use Awake’s AI-driven WeBible web service to write sermons. When a pastor asks about a certain section of the Bible, the service can offer detailed explanations, identify main messages and points of reflection, and suggest a title for the sermon. “We faced strong resistance from churches initially with their suspicion that we are trying to replace God and pastors,” said Kim Min-joon, Awake’s chief executive. “But pastors began to appreciate our service as it helps them save time in preparing for sermons, and find more time to take care of lonely, troubled followers.”
Awake changed the name of its app from Ask Jesus to Meadow after it realised some users regarded the chatbot’s answers as the word of God. “AI is just a technology,” said Kim. “I just hope our service will be used as a digital missionary tool.” Meadow is based on Open AI’s ChatGPT technology but Awake has trained its chatbot with its own vast theological database and used prompt engineering — optimising textual input to communicate effectively with large language models — to prevent AI “hallucinations”, which is a phenomenon wherein a large language model creates inaccurate output. A committee composed of pastors continuously reviews the accuracy of the chatbot’s answers.
About 20 per cent of 650 Protestant ministers in Korea recently surveyed by the Ministry Data Institute said they have used ChatGPT to create sermons and about 60 per cent of them found ChatGPT useful in coming up with ideas for sermons. “Some pastors have even asked for full sermons created by AI, but I turned them down,” said Kim, himself a Christian. “Technology-wise it is not difficult, but religion is all about spirituality. AI and software can generate sermons but they are not spiritually inspired. If AI writes a sermon from A to Z, it can’t be soulful.”
Korean churches are also relying on an AI-backed audio bible platform, Biblely, developed by start-up Voiselah, for their missionary work. Biblely has created audio bibles recorded with pastors from about 50 churches, using generative AI technology trained on each pastor’s voice. Choo Hun-yup, chief executive of Voiselah, said demand for Biblely surged during the Covid pandemic when the government suspended large-scale religious services. Choo added that many churchgoers are inspired by the AI-powered audio bibles, unaware that the recordings are generated with the latest technology.
“They believe their pastor read the bibles aloud from the beginning to the end for recording,” he said. Through Voiselah, it is also possible to record an audio bible with an artificially generated family member’s voice — for example using a late parent’s voice to record a bible for their children. The company is planning to expand into the US next year. “Bibles are global bestsellers but many people nowadays find it burdensome to read them, as they are too long,” said Choo. “AI helps them listen easily with their pastor’s or family member’s familiar voice.”
Lee Dong-chan, a pastor at Dream Church in the city of Ansan south-west of Seoul, remains cautious about depending too much on AI — although he often uses WeBible for his pastoral work. “Sermons written by AI can’t make people spiritually fulfilled,” he said. “Preaching is also about dealing with people, so it is one of the few jobs that can’t be replaced by AI.”