NASHVILLE (BP) -- In the future, could a machine lead a human to faith in Christ? Actually, it's already been done, said data scientist Daniel Whitenack.
At Faith Leads Tech, a conference hosted Nov. 9 at LifeWay Christian Resources' corporate headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., Whitenack described a chatbot that uses artificial intelligence (AI) software to tell people about Jesus. To date, more than 400 people have interacted with the bot and made professions of faith, Whitenack reported.
Using AI technology for redemptive purposes was just one of many topics discussed at Faith Leads Tech -- a one-day conference designed to bring together followers of Jesus who are interested in using technology and innovation to provide biblical solutions for life.
"As Christians, it's imperative we remember our faith drives the way we interact with and use technology," said Adam Murray, a senior software engineer at LifeWay and one of the conference organizers, "We really believe faith leads tech."
Around 175 tech enthusiasts attended the first-year conference, and more than 500 people registered for the livestream in which 19 presenters and panel discussion members gave TED-style presentations about how technology and faith intersect.
Stephen Olmstead, vice president of design strategy for InVision, explored the origins of technology from Genesis 1:1-3 and argued that Christians have a technological imperative.
People often say technology is morally neutral, but the Bible calls it inherently good, Olmstead said. He defined technology as a capability given by the practical application of knowledge.
In the framework of this definition, Olmstead said the first technology was deemed good when God created light through His speech and knowledge.
"God created man in His own image," Olmstead said, "So we also have the desire to create new technology written on our heart."
Olmstead challenged attendees to be bold in their innovative efforts as they steward technology and ideas.
"Ask for wisdom from God, pursue skills and craft new technology and lead and motivate others to get them excited about what we can do for the Kingdom," he said.
Justin Trapp and Wade Bearden
"Innovative ideas aren't simply reincarnations of what's worked in the past; they're new opportunities and disruptors," said bivocational pastors and entrepreneurs Justin Trapp and Wade Bearden.
Trapp and Bearden created Sermonary, a cloud-based sermon-writing platform they launched through a Kickstarter campaign. The startup partners spoke about the challenges and opportunities found in disrupting entrenched systems with new technology.
"The printing press changed the way the Bible was read. Podcasting changed the way we listen to sermons," they said. "It may very well be that a new innovation to further spread the Gospel is just around the corner -- if we can see it."
In preparing to create Sermonary, Trapp and Bearden surveyed 1,200 church leaders. Half of the pastors sampled said the task of writing sermons brings stress to their life -- a ministerial pain point the pair wanted to address through new technology.
"Entrepreneurs must look for new opportunities," they said, citing how Uber didn't aim to make a better taxi company, but to create a new experience for travelers.
"People don't get excited about better," Trapp and Bearden said. "They get excited about new opportunities -- a new vision for the future."
"I can remember the last conversation I had with my mom, but I can't remember the last time I heard my mom speak," said software engineer Nate Taylor, whose mother relied on a computer to communicate with her family after ALS stole her ability to speak.
"This software gave my mom the dignity to know she was still a child of God even though she had lost her voice," Taylor said.
He encouraged fellow software engineers to remember their work can be done to the glory of God if it's anchored to a love for people.
"We can't write software for the sake of writing software," he said. "The focus of our work must always be on people created in God's image -- people like my mom."
Shamichael Hallman, co-founder of Christian hackathon Code for the Kingdom, reminded attendees there are often diversity issues in the tech world and that Christians must intentionally bring new voices to the table to reflect God's creative diversity.
"How do we create space that invites more women and people of color?" he asked. "That's going to be the key to creating truly innovative creations."
Hallman encouraged technologists to seek synergy among a broader audience and asked them to consider who else needs to be represented on their teams.
"I believe God can work through us to transform our societies, but we have to make sure we have everyone at the table," he said.
Closing out the conference was Kelli Kelly, director of digital solutions for LifeWay. Kelly spoke on the need for agile leadership in the Christian culture.
"I propose if we live like Christ, we are agile," Kelly said. "We take our knowledge and put it into action in our leadership roles in the church and workspace."
Kelly stressed that God-honoring leadership in the tech world is marked by a humility that considers the development of others more important than advancing personal agendas.
"Servant leadership is a way of being," she said. "We must value the heart and the interest of the people around us."
Kelly ended by presenting an "Agile Manifesto" that maintains individuals are more important than processes, customer collaboration more valuable than contract negotiation and responding to change more imperative than following a plan.
"You have the opportunity to take this and lead," Kelly said. "It just takes one person."
Other sessions addressed why pastors and theologians need designers and coders, how to navigate a mission-driven startup, the importance of elevating beauty above utility in innovations, how to use data visualization as a Bible-teaching tool and why Christians should steward Kingdom technology. A panel discussion also explored the qualities present in a godly tech leader.
A digital pass containing video recordings of all Faith Leads Tech sessions is available for purchase at FaithLeads.Tech.