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The Bot Evangelist

Around me is the fast tapping and fast talking of hackathon buzz. Here in Katowice, Poland, I’m visiting the first Code for the Kingdom Hackathon to happen in Poland, where there is a bot evangelist in the making.

The organisers are hackathon veterans, but it’s the first time they have turned thier coding passion to Kingdom building. Code that can help Christians, help ministries and help churches.

Despite the fast growing wave of Code for the Kingdom hackathons around the world (last year saw a global event bringing together 14 different cities around the world hacking on one weekend), the use of code, or more broadly, technology in ministry and the church still feels fairly nascent.

Yet here, there is a glimmer of opportunity for Christians to get out ahead of the pack — using bots.

Bots bots bots…

Yes bots probably need a quick primer, many in the tech space are still getting their head around them. Typically, bots are a kind of app that run inside of a chat messaging application, they can perform a similar function to services like Siri or Alexa, but with specific focus and context.

By text chatting’ you can perform various actions like shopping, news and weather checking or booking a flight. The bot typically uses an AI engine to understand the request and provide natural language processing. They can follow the context of a conversation and respond appropriately.

Currently, this contextualisation is somewhat limited but it won’t be long before they realise where you are, what your doing and the time of day to provide smarter responses.

The bot space is exploding right now with several major players throwing their hat in the ring. The most significant recently is Facebook Messenger. You can read more about that here.

So, back in Poland there are hackathon challenges around finding church services, community groups and getting Bible feeds in Facebook. To these challenges I threw the idea of solving them via bots, specifically the Messenger bot.

Simple Ministry Requests

For example a user may ask:

  • Show me John 3:16
  • What time is church near me”
  • Find me a toddler group”
  • What is the gospel”

The bot would respond with information or bible references to each of these things or perhaps some pre-written content on the subject. These are simple starting points to experiment with an interesting and rapidly evolving tech. To be fair as some point out it’s really another way to search the web. But as the AI evolves and the ability to parse deep questions develops, where could it go?

Can a bot lead someone to Christ? Can a bot grapple with theology, and get it right? When should a bot realise the user needs a human response?

When adopting new technology these are most certainly questions we should consider right at the outset. It’s why I feel prompted to at least note them down, if not fully address them, as the tech is being implemented in front of me. Since I started this article one of the team now has the bot responding to them. Next we will move onto developing user scenarios, by the end of the weekend, this bot could be live and in use by some of the 900 Million users of Facebook Messenger.

To our advantage right now is ironically the fact the technology is so new and fairly limited, so we have time to figure these things out, but not much.

A Bot Evangelist Manifesto

So, to begin I suggest we have some basic principles in mind and then set out some aims. If you like, let this be a scratch pad manifesto for bot evangelism.

We must be grounded in the truth that ultimately the Holy Spirit is the one who leads anyone to Christ and that God loves to use technology in his salvation plans on the one hand. But on the other, we have an enemy that wants to subvert our plans and we have a sinful nature that tends toward abusing the tools and opportunities before us.

  • Pastoral care for the individual must be our highest aim. Using bots must not be a substitute for wise council and loving our user”.
  • Interaction with bots however advanced they become is not relational, it will always be informational. Leading the individual into a real human relationship must be a core goal of any bot interaction.
  • Realise the limitations and therefore the potential failures of bot AI. Christianity in a wholistic, global and historical sense has been riddled with disputes, erroneous teaching and damaging practices, let’s not create bots that open the door to any more. Their understanding is limited (and based on our own flaws for that matter), so their depth and application must be limited too.
  • Do use ministry bots to develop quick, fun, helpful and engaging interaction experiences, providing answers and resources, but always point the user to Christ.

So there it is the dawn of the bot evangelist in ministry is happening. What could it be, what will it look like and what should we be aware of? Technologists, theologians and ministry folk let the conversation begin…

Posted on May 21, 2016 by Sam Peckham

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