With Sacred Synthesis, Joshua Stafford incorporates AI into worship planning

Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, is responsible for developing each Sacred Song Service for Sunday evenings. He is often inspired by the themes for the week for the Chautauqua Lecture Series or the Interfaith Lecture Series.

This week’s service, “Sacred Synthesis,” is at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater. Stafford was inspired by the themes for Week Two: “The AI Revolution” and “Religion’s Intersections: Interdisciplinary Imagination with Science, Technology and AI.” The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua,  will preside. Annie Leech, student minister for the 2024 season, will be the reader. Sonya Subbayya Sutton will provide piano accompaniment. Stafford will direct the Chautauqua Choir. 

And for Stafford’s other contributions to the service?

In the fall of 2023, he wondered, “How can I incorporate AI in worship?” So, he started a conversation with ChatGPT.

“The results I got were OK, but not stellar,” he said. “As I tried again a few months later, I wrote at least part of the service with (the more advanced) ChatGPT 4, and there was a notable improvement.”

Stafford tried to get ChatGPT to write a hymn for the 150th anniversary of Chautauqua, but again, the results were … fine. 

“I fed it a simple tune and it did pretty well. I still had to swap a few words to make the song work metrically,” he said. “I was able to give it information to relate to Chautauqua and I was surprised at how much relevant information it could draw. That is when I decided to do a whole service.”

Stafford shared some of the usual Sacred Song Service formats with the artificial intelligence chatbot, and engaged in some dialogues with it. 

“I would ask it for hymn suggestions, and then I would ask why it thought they were fitting for the service,” he said.

Stafford found ChatGPT most helpful in how quickly it could pull relevant and appropriate quotes from authors and scripture. It was most frustrating to try to create something with a meter that was singable. But, “I expect that will come soon,” he said. 

His goal for the service? 

“I hope it sparks conversation,” he said. “The content might not be quite as good as usual, but there are ways it can be useful without putting our complete reliance on it.”

The printed programs for the service will include the questions Stafford put to ChatGPT. Did he give his AI assistant a name? 

“No,” he said with a smile, “but I tried to be polite.”

Tags : AIartificial intelligenceJoshua StaffordreligionSacred Song

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.