Pastor Busi Khumalo, youth ministries director of the General Conference, talks to Malkia Robinson, one of the young persons attending the youth engagement segment led by the GC missionary team at the Central Adventist Church on Apr. 11, 2024, on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. [Photo: Curtis Henry]

Leaders advise young people to use new tools ethically and remain anchored in faith.

May 2, 2024 | Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands | CARU Staff and Inter-American Division News

Seventh-day Adventist church leaders have often stated that youth engagement is essential for the future of the church and its mission. So, when the General Conference (GC) Treasury department planned their April 2024 mission trip to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, engaging with young members seemed nothing but the most natural course of action.

On April 11, 2024, in a two-hour gathering advertised as an “AI and Ice Cream Social,” several church leaders engaged with more than fifty participants at the upper floor of the Central Seventh-day Adventist community center. Their goal? To create a space where technology and faith intersect in one setting, they said. The training emphasized the necessity of leveraging the digital era’s tools while staying anchored in a Bible-based faith.

Young people from the St. Croix Seventh-day Adventist School listen in during the AI seminar presentation. [Photo: Curtis Henry]

Richard Stephenson, chief information officer and associate treasurer of the General Conference, facilitated the program. “Online now, there are so many competing sources of truth, but when you dig a little deeper, they are hollow,” Stephenson told participants. “What we want to do with all the advancement in AI is increasingly produce information to point others to Scripture.”

Combining Youth with Technology

GC Youth Ministries Director Pastor Busi Khumalo expressed his satisfaction with the initiative. “When you look at the history of the church you cannot help but marvel at how God is willing to use young people to advance His church,” Khumalo said. “Technology is where young people are. That’s their space. They are fascinated by gadgets, media, social media, and artificial intelligence — the direction in which the world is moving. We should not be found lacking by not moving with the times,” he said.

Richard Stephenson, chief information officer and associate treasurer of the General Conference, facilitates during the youth engagement segment.[Photo: Curtis Henry]

Stephenson agreed. “This is a good moment, a necessary and very urgent one for all our young people. Digital media has gathered us with a single mission to establish a communication network,” he said.

He also pointed out that the whole world has already made decisions regarding digital technology. “People are looking for information and we should give deep thoughts and provide truthful answers,” said Stephenson. “Websites, cars, phones, even our refrigerators are learning the patterns of human life simply through memory and programming language. We have undergone four industrial revolutions, each further advancing the boundaries of innovation and convenience.” All these advancements could work in the church’s favor, he emphasized.

A young person talks with a General Conference Treasury team during the youth engagement segment. [Photo: Curtis Henry]

The Source of Truth

Notwithstanding the advancements, Stephenson warned that so much of what we see and what we hear is fake. “How do we tell what’s true?” he asked. For one, he reminded his audience, AI is not our source of truth. “Rather, God’s Word is truth, and we must spend time in Scripture.” Stephenson explained that as advanced as AI is, we cannot allow it to be the foundation of truth. “There’s an inherent risk in AI technology such as ChatGPT, and experts are just beginning to comprehend some of its implications,” he said. “But AI can be a powerful tool if used correctly.”

Khumalo highlighted the importance of Stephenson’s presentation. “This is powerful because sometimes youth don’t know where to start,” he explained. “Generative AI can give you enough to get you started and help you to save time, organizing data that would take days and weeks to process. But let us be authentic.”

Mission team volunteers serve cups of ice cream to all the participants from the youth engagement program on Apr. 11, 2024. [Photo: Curtis Henry]

GC Associate Treasurer Sabrina C. DeSouza agreed. “This is the beginning of a new era, and we have to teach our young people how to use AI responsibly,” she said. “Young people are using AI to plagiarize and do all sorts of illegal things. We want them to use AI responsibly.”

Practical Demonstrations

Stephenson used a considerable amount of time in his presentation to show those in attendance different AI tools that can be used to generate songs — content that they want to hear and they want to do. He demonstrated how AI can help modulate the configurations so that what is generated and shared matches their religious beliefs and can be used to advance mission.

General Conference Associate Treasurers Richard Stephenson (left) and Sabrina C. DeSouza (second left) engage with colleagues during the workshop program on Apr. 11, 2024. [Photo: Curtis Henry]

At the same time, Stephenson shared how the Adventist Church incorporates AI technology to share a weekly message by GC President Ted N. C. Wilson with other world fields. AI uses Wilson’s voice and inflections from the original English and using his voice, superimposes his message into dozens of languages. By way of an example, Stephenson shared samples of one of Wilson’s weekly messages in Korean and other languages. “This is a combination of content and technology,” he said. “This is not a demonstration we are doing; it is a tool that from now on will make the message available in many different languages. What we need is all possible tools to share the good news of salvation.”

Church leaders said they will continue to encourage young church members to share hope throughout their social media communities. Khumalo reported that at the next GC session, there will be a special offering collected just for digital ministry. “May God give us wisdom and open our eyes, so we are not get wrapped in what is before us,” he said.

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