Moving On and Moving Forward

“Forget Going Back to the Office—People Are Just Quitting Instead” was posted a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal (14 June 2021). It’s probably my wiring (and focus) to ask, “what will the church do with this?

My expectation? Nothing.

A few days ago, Rey De Armes was with Jeff Reed on The Church Digital Podcast. Rey was the Digital Pastor for Christ Fellowship Miami. Pre-COVID, he was already feeling the nudge of God to (re-)pursue his joy of medicine. He’s out of ministry…or is he?

While Rey’s journey back to medicine started pre-COVID, there are a lot of pastors, church staff, and everyday Christians who will be moving on in the next few months (nope, not a statement about myself). There is a strong expectation that the next year will see a huge exit from the churches, not just the laypeople (though that is estimated to be 30%). It is expected that many staff and other leaders will be leaving, too.

Many are flat-out burned out. Others look back at COVID, and realize what their church had become, bound. Others realize that COVID has freed them of their (and perhaps even their denomination’s) expectations and even understanding of what it means to lead the church…and, even more positively, what it means to be the church.

The Industrial Revolution drew people into the cities pursuing a better life. The post-COVID revolution may send many people away from the cities. It used to be that the knowledge workers (including banks, lawyers, clergy, educators) would collect in particular places. Technology frees them (to some degree) from that.

10 years ago, I was the exception. My company decided that they wanted to keep me, even though I was moving away. We arranged a way for me to do remote work. I would still commute 2 days a week (approximately), but for manufacturing this was huge.

Fast forward to today, and what was revolutionary 10 years ago is now common. In fact, one of my sales contacts recently moved hundreds of miles away. She kept her job. She prefers the place that isn’t insanely expensive. Whole industries will be changing.

Will the people in the WSJ article be the norm? Probably not. Does a nearly double change reflect a new reality? Yes. Are we watching wages increase in leaps? Yes. Do we know exactly how things will change? No.

Many people are waiting to see how things will change. This may be the fatal mistake. My take is that things will be fluid for a number of years. How will organizations respond in a few years? Will they even be around to respond in a few years? Doing nothing is not a plan, or at least not a plan for success.

What does this have to do with Rey? Well, one of the big changes I see is that the church really needs to equip its people to be the ministers.

We clergy are to equip non-clergy folks to do the work of the ministry. Discipleship is definitely part of this. Discipleship is to be forming others to form others to be more like Jesus in love and mission. We talk a lot about love and holiness in regard to “Christ-like-ness”. We seem to skip the mission part.

We (the church and its clergy) are at a crossroads. We can hunker down behind the 4 walls that will fall down around our ears, or we move beyond the four walls and embrace the “Wild Goose” of the Holy Spirit and move forward into the world.

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Structure Serves Mission

Digital isn’t great because it’s the newest shiny toy. Digital works best when it serves its purpose. The purpose of digital church (or the digital expression of it) is the mission. It is a structure. If we cannot rightly divide structure from serving mission, then we are either looking at the structure wrong or the mission.

The structure never was the mission. The mission is Christ’s…serve to save the world.

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Not “My” Way

Warning: this is a long post.

My Place

As this reflection may appear to be “anti” Church of the Nazarene, I want to be perfectly clear that while I address (what I perceive as) issues within the Church of the Nazarene (as a whole, and in particular my context of USA/Canada), it remains the denomination that God continues to draw me to remain. This is the denomination that God called me as a pastor. It will take much more than this post to change it.

However, Nazarene.Digital exists as my wake-up call to myself and to others that the Church of the Nazarene is not a digital denomination, and we are just as (if not more) called to the digital world as the physical world.

Digital More Than “Just” Matters

A few months ago, I was part of Stadia‘s Phygital 2.0 Cohort. As part of the pre-acceptance interview, I mentioned my denomination. The response was disappointing. This is not to knock the person in question’s perspective, but that it was the perspective was the disappointment. [An aside: that this response continues to rattle around in my head, heart, and spirit, is also telling]

The basic (gross paraphrase) response was that the denomination is so focused on the church building (despite unequivocally stating that “the church is the people; not the building”), that church planting seems to be doomed to failure in the current cultural context. I, it seems, was a breath of fresh air (and I’m sure I’m not the only one in the denomination, to be clear).

This was a church planter (and planter coach/coordinator’s) perspective of the denomination. It hurt, really.

To Plant

A number of years ago, I took a church planting course. One of the lessons from that course (offered within my local denominational district) was that new churches were statistically (there are always exceptions) more likely to draw new believers in (there are a number of reasons for this, which are far beyond this particular post or site).

My local district took that concept and ran with it (which deserves cheers and accolades). I observed, however, that it ran out of steam (at least to my eyes). I wonder if it is because of what was/is defined denominationally as a successful church plant: a building.

In the Puget Sound area (where I am currently), that is a huge stretch/ask. The best way to think of it is this, if a church is shut down and the property sold, there is no financial way to ever have a denominationally owned building again (Generally. I can think of a few non-traditional ways for that to occur. Then again, that’s non-traditional.).

If one applies that same financial reality to church planting, basing the success of a church plant on a building is setting the plant up to fail.

So, why all the pre-amble? One, it’s been building up for a while. Two, I read a Facebook post (targeted toward pastors within the denomination) from the last few days, and it finally caused me to put this into writing.

Here To Stay

The reality is that while our denomination and pastors have “embraced” digital during COVID and somewhat prior to that, it seems that it is more of a necessity than a perspective it is of equal value to gathering as a corporate body in a building. Even small groups (as allowed per COVID) or “home churches” are viewed as “less than” the “so-called” church.

The straw, so to speak, that broke my internal “camel’s” back was an approximate statement that if the person were not called to be a pastor, they wouldn’t attend any digital service. While that may have been only a single person’s words, the gist of too much of the pastoral conversation falls along this line. If it’s digital…forget it.

This is a denomination whose “mission” statement “…is to make Christlike disciples in the nations.” For me, “the nations” are just as much digital as they are political/tribal/social boundaries.

The Digital Nations

There is an irony here. We accept (denominationally and theologically) being missionaries to foreign countries. When we do such, we understand that we must change to present the Gospel. The mission and the Word don’t change. Just the methodology changes.

When it comes to physical, we don’t have a problem with it. When it is digital, it seems that our perspective is different. Digital doesn’t seem to even qualify as third-class.

I completely understand that for many (even most) people digital doesn’t “scratch” their (in-)person itch. I even understand that many people cannot equate “church” to digital. However, if we are truly to reach the nations, how we “feel” about digital is…irrelevant.

What may be the real stretch for pastors, the denomination, and even the wider church, is the coming digital-only churches.

Only—Not, Going—Digitial

Did you know that a number of new plants (no Church of the Nazarene that I am aware of) accelerated their planting strategy to become digital-first (and even digital-only) during COVID? They didn’t postpone their original physical plan (whether for 2020 or 2021). They wholescale changed it to digital, and started!

That may well be what comes next. Breaking the tie between physical and digital is not ideal. However, it may be necessary as too much training and culture is based on physical.

The Hard Part

It might be that we can bring the two together, someday. As there will likely be some sort of COVID-constrained behavior through 2021, the break may be necessary. A new mindset may be required.

If the Church of the Nazarene rises or falls is not really the point. The reality is that we (as Christians) are called to find ways to connect people to Jesus Christ. As hard as it may be to hear, the treasured buildings aren’t it.

God Does

If we believe that God is omnipresent, then would God not exist digitally, too?

I have received a lot of support that we need to do digital. I have come to realize, though, that almost all of it is intellectual assent. It isn’t belief.

There is a difference in a Christian who assents to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and one who believes it in heart and soul. So, too, is there a difference in a person who assents to digital, and the person who believes it.

Campus Versus Broadcast

Now for the more personal part. My current job title is Online Campus Pastor. Broadcasting isn’t an Online Campus.

I actually agree with many that live streaming (i.e., broadcasting) isn’t the community in which we are called to be part. The digital expression of church is not seeing what’s happening inside the building. I believe in actual groups of learning and accountability.

Rarely, would anyone disagree with groups of learning and accountability. Usually, we get equivocations, rationales, excuses, and reasoning (many of which are understandable) as why people do not belong to groups of learning and accountability. We get them all the time when it comes to physical.

It is just that these can happen effectually and deeply online. All it takes is people willing to be so. Wait, that sounds like physical, too.

Tech to Fulfill the Mission

There is definitely a transformation that is needed. The real issue isn’t COVID. It isn’t Zoom fatigue. It isn’t Facebook. It isn’t Twitter.

The real issue it that digital pervades, and the church seems to be doing its best to do the bare minimum, and usually a few years behind.

What if the church didn’t use the Roman Road? A brief historical recap. The Roman Road was a historic marvel. The Roman Empire build a road of stone (versus dirt and mud) across the empire. Along with the Pax Romana (the military enforced peace across the empire), the road allowed the church to spread. Where the Roman Road was, so, too, was the church (eventually).

If the church stuck to the dirt byways because it was “traditional”, would the churches of Philippi, Ephesus, Laodicea and even have existed to have letters written to them (also spread by the Roman Road)? Digital is the Roman Road.

Digital’s Pending Physical Reality

Even amidst my concern for the now, it is the future that concerns me most. Extended Reality (covering both the Augmented—Google Glass, Magic Leap, Holo Lens—and Virtual—Oculus, Vive, Gear—Reality) is coming. The church has to start addressing it now.

Much of the same theological and cultural issues will be applicable. One of the pending ones, touch, is where the church needs to really be looking at it. Even most of my digital peers, I don’t think, are covering this.

The tech exists, now, to “touch”. Think about that. The excuse of being unable to “hug” a person goes away. Researchers at the University of Birmingham studied Rayleigh Waves. They discovered an electronic (i.e., performable by a future digital interface) way to “tell” the brain we “felt” something. We already have the simplified haptic system, but this ushers in something far greater.

VR baptisms are already a thing. They are dismissed. What if you can feel the water cover you?

One of the things that comes to mind as I listen to DC Talk’s Mind’s Eye is Billy Graham’s riff on the wind (yes, he was talking about the Holy Spirit). We know it exists. We see its effects. We never see it.

Why is it so hard to apply that same thought digitally?

Vaporware Campus

If you’ve made it this far down this post, I’m amazed (and, thank you for your time). This isn’t an “optimized” digital post (too long, I know).

As I reflect of almost a year of COVID, and being “the digital” pastor, I’ve come to a conclusion. The term of Online Campus Pastor does not apply. In my current context (with nothing against my church, its staff, or its people), I don’t see that becoming a reality.

This isn’t its way. It is the mirror I look at my denomination. My local church was far ahead of many Church of the Nazarene churches.

The tech concept of do new things and break them (you still have to have a plan, though) often is, for many, contrary to the way of the church. I get it from a church history and theology standpoint. I support it to great extent.

I am just at a different place for what that means in regard to church expression. What that means for the near-, medium-, and long-term, I don’t know. I can only be faithful to where I discern God is calling me, even while I try to learn what exactly that means.

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167 Hours Remain

If I’m talking for an hour a week, and they’re feeding their souls with something else 15 hours a week,” Bezner said, “I simply can’t win.”

A pastor’s life depends on a coronavirus vaccine. Now he faces skeptics in his church. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington Post. Dec. 11, 2020 (web).

One of the reality checks that “the church” received during the COVID-19 restrictions is that the “teaching” done on Sundays isn’t enough. There has long been an assumption that people show up, so they must be being spiritually trained and discipled.

The Small Group movement had some recognition that this wasn’t actually true. However, many churches used small groups more as an attraction and assimilation rather than inculcation. In other words, always focusing on felt needs and “interest” issues resulted in people untrained and undiscipled.

There are many folks who talk about “consumer” Christianity. This might well be it. Bezner makes a solid point, and it has come to prominence in certain “church” circles. So, what are we doing for the remaining 167 hours a week (which is way more than Bezner’s 15 hours)?

In the COVID-19 environment, churches are building out Facebook—and other platform—groups. Churches are posting large amounts of pithy pictures and sayings. A church page may be getting likes, but likes do not equal engagement.

Engagement is the new “buzzword”. That doesn’t invalidate it. On the contrary, “engagement” has become part of the necessary language due to how social media works (especially, Facebook).

However, what has been happening is that somehow engagement has become an assumption that people have been discipled. Engagement does not equal discipleship.

The hardest part about North American and European Christians is that discipleship has a cost, and most do not want to pay it. The cost? Time.

This may not be a battle the church can win. That sounds depressing. This also may be the truth that sets the church free.

The church has been running with blinders for too many decades. Even, it seems, its “faithful” are not quite the “faithful” that the Scriptures have in mind. Nickels and noses is no longer adequate (and it really never was). Engagement may be marginally better than nickels and noses.

Even so, the church and all Christians are called to make disciples.

Building Delusion

Has our definition of ministry become so focused on the building that we can’t change lives outside of it?

Nona Jones, From Social Media to Social Ministry

Noah Jones is concerned that the church is overly focused on the plane. And everything it does , is concerned with building.

I think she is correct in that our definition of ministry is too entrenched in the building.

Reality is, however, that we have been deluding ourselves into thinking any transformation is occurring in the building at all.

Digital ministry gives us the freedom to reach people wherever and whenever they are. It also removes our pride and our blinders from our assumption that Sunday is the day when it all “happens”.

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Church and Kids Ministry Online

One of the big struggles with the current church online scenario is what to do with kids. Churches are struggling with it. In many ways the problem can be summarized this way…

Don’t try to digitize the past or the present. We need to invent the industry of tomorrow.

Erik Swedberg

The quote is actually from a Dassault webinar I watched, but the application is wide-ranging. Churches are asking how can we do kids ministry online the same way we used to. The answer…we can’t.

We can’t just approximate what we did physically for children in the digital space.

We may have to go “old school” and disciple and equip the parents to engage their kids.

We may all have to act as if the time of church programs that often acted as free (or discount) kid watching (and, yes, brought lots of people in and built relationships) is over.

Emily Flake wrote a piece titled, My Kid Sold Her Soul to Roblox: It’s my daughter’s main social outlet, and I’m not taking it away from her. In it we read a parent’s struggle with the current reality of living remotely.

This is not to argue against gathering physically (Flake certainly isn’t). It is to recognize that part of the church’s struggle with kids ministry in the current context is that we’re trying to do it the same way that we’ve been doing it for decades.

Here’s the question, though. If kids ministry has been so effective the way we’ve been doing it for the last few decades, then why has the percentage of identifying Christians continued to drop at an increasing rate?

Maybe COVID is our guilt-free way of pressing reset on church.

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Spacing Out

We’re all basically in a place right now where we have so many attentional drains, because we don’t have place to focus us. You know, going to a place focuses our effort, because we’re here to do a thing, but when you’re working out of your home, it’s very different.

How to Channel Your Attention, Todd Henry. The Accidental Creative Podcast ©2020

We recently received a message that some of our people would not return to church, because we required face masks (in compliance with the government directive).

First of all, this is not about any COVID-19 face mask requirements in your state (or country). Nor is this about the apparent disregard some have for the authorities. Nor is this about those who rigidly adhere.

This is about space.

Many years ago, I heard about a study on sleep and reading. The study’s supposed conclusion was that if we spend all our time reading in our bed, we will psychologically associate our bed (a place of sleep/rest) with reading (a wakeful activity). This makes it, according to the study, harder to fall asleep.

Associating a space with an activity is valuable, and very human. This is part of what makes the current conversation about church online difficult. There is a reason many people cannot move beyond the space.

Thomas Moore wrote about this in one of his books (I can’t remember if it was Care of the Soul or Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life) about people making altars in the simple places in their homes.

We see this in many Asian countries. If you go to many Asian restaurants, you will see, often at the entrance, a very simple shrine. You may overlook it. However, that is a “place” within another “place” that has a completely different function.

Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6 NIV)

Why bring that up? Well, it’s talking about space; a private space for a particular activity.

That family from the opening? They were looking for a space worship with certain requirements.

Todd Henry’s focus was on how, for those working from home, there is all this stuff competing for attention. His point being that people were having to fight greater distractions from home. He was applying this to work.

This also applies to church. A person is at home “watching” church. The same distractions that may have caused a problem working remotely now impact worship.

For the ongoing COVID season, we may have to start thinking about teaching people about space and preparing a space for worship. It could be as simple as a couple of candles that are only used during worship (back to the whole psychology thing).

There is another reason for this. Should the church return to the building next year (we hope), we may have to reteach and relearn how to worship again together. Yes, that’s down the road, but it’s back to space, and it would be a different space than the space once worshiped in (i.e., their home).

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Let’s NOT Go Back?

Just like so many people, I’ve been overwhelmed as of late. You’d think I’d be really happy that all the churches are going online. I am. It’s just that I’ve found that it now means a lot more voices in this conversation that I, as an introvert, find hard to manage.

That being said, I’ve been listening to an older episode of The Church Digital Podcast (Episode 69), and Matt Welty and Jason Morris drop a proverbial bomb in the first 10 minutes

Matt Welty, “…it’s up to you pastors then go for it, you take the responsibility of the health of your county, of your neighborhood, and of your state. It’s on you now. Because the sports guys, they’re not doing anything. I mean, every other large gathering has been clamped down except for the church. And this is one of those weird legal things about separation of church and state kind of stuff where it plays out in wacky ways. For pastors right now. And now we’ve got pressure from both sides. We’ve got pressure from the culture to not open and then you’ve got pressure from people in our churches to open…We want it because it will give us a sense of normalcy. As a churchgoer, as someone who’s been in bad habit, this will give me an anchor that feels great and it will be amazing and I’ll get to see my people and that’ll be awesome. But we’re going to reopen and risk are witness to unbelieving people who we hope to reach and welcome into the family of God. So that the church people who are already engaged in our church currently can come back into a building and then…”

Jason Morris, “…Because you would think that we would have learned from the example of Jesus, that it’s not about us [it’s] about that last person who doesn’t know Jesus yet. And if we do something stupid culturally, that puts yet another mark against the name of Jesus. I think we’re kind of gonna be held accountable for that, too”

Otter.ai transcription of The Church Digital Podcast Ep 069.

Perhaps this is telling of my perspective as it currently stands. I agree with them. The people of the church are so eager to get back to normal, that it could be that we are blind to the people around us who are not church people, or even not believers in Jesus Christ.

The whole staged return concept is attractive, yet it is fraught with dangers. The steps forward and likely steps back will probably create more hard feelings or bad habits. It has struck me that the staggered return might actually accelerate the big fear of the “the church” as an organization…they aren’t coming back.

This dovetails into concerns that are more of a personal and pastoral point-of-view, rather than the Digital Expression of the Great Commission (what this site wants to be about).

I’m glad that people want to get back together. Even I, as the introvert, am struggling with this separation. However, we really need to think about why people want to get back together. Is this really just proof that “the church” is a country club?

How many people are pursuing some sort of discipling while not attending church? Even when options are provided (and within the confines of requests), many people are not part of some sort of discipleship.

Of course, there is the reality is that some people are participating in discipleship (especially right now) to “medicate” their separation from others. There are also probably far too many that are participating more to check the box than to grow in Christ.

All this to say, that “the church” should probably reconsider when and how the return to the building is done.

Now for the ouch part, for me at least. When the church was kicked out of Jerusalem (tied to the fall of Jerusalem in CE 66–73), the church really began to spread. Perhaps instead of viewing not being able to be in the building as a problem to solve, it ought to be seen as a mission to be embraced.

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No One Way

Yesterday (on Easter), I woke up (on purpose) before 5am. I had decided to experience Tampa Underground’s Easter gathering. Tampa Underground is a hub-and-spoke model of church, in particular microsites. There is a governing center (the hub) with a whole bunch of committed satellite sites (the spokes). It is different than the American standard model of denominations in that each microsite is very particular and small on purpose. This is in contrast to many American churches that are small and particular by chance, atrophy, directionlessness, or some leader issues.

Yet, the hub-and-spoke model created a very different (historically) expression of an Easter service. We were (predominately) on Zoom. Due to Zoom limitations, some people were watching on Facebook. What made this interesting is that there were people from Ireland, the Philippines, France, and the USA all leading different aspects of this worship gathering. Imagine that! An international/intercultural Easter gathering! Talk about turning the world’s systems upside down!

If there is one thing that church online does better than the physical gathering on Sundays (or whatever day your church gathers), is the ability to gather from around the globe. There is a special power when people outside of your immediate world speak into your life.

The standard model of church is able to do this, but the protection of one’s local context (often out of unrecognized fear) creates an atmosphere where this is much harder. The advantage of the hub-and-spoke model is an automatic decentralization that really allows for such a creative and expressive Easter (or any church) gathering.

So, while much of the church is still trying to figure out what the digital means for their local expression, there also needs to be a shift into thing what we can do with this technology. This time is a challenge. This time is also an opportunity!

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Now What?

One of the biggest (and most valid) critiques of doing church online (or, as in the current COVID situation, only online) is the lack of connection. We humans are made for connection. Understand that this is coming from an introvert. I too need connection. There is something about physical connection. There is this matter of being present with one another that often defies logic.

Many people of the more digital persuasion are not persuaded by this undefinable need. Some people dismiss the “digitarati” as broken or emotionally-stunted people. Some may be that way. Most, however, are driven by numbers not undefinables, or so they think. Honestly, numbers are good. Those that often dismiss the digitarati don’t connect the numbers to the people.

There is the historical people are not numbers. They aren’t. They are people with stories. However, numbers represent people, people who have stories. Numbers can and do tell stories, too. They tell the story of people and their history. Numbers should be paid attention to.

What does that have to do with, “now what?”

There are lots of numbers watching church online right now. That cannot be enough. There are usually a lot of numbers watching football, soccer, basketball, hockey. Numbers can do many things. And they are lacking…and so is online church.

Yes, online church is the wave of the future. Okay, it was. It is now the present. Our next steps, and I know mine, is how we move to discipleship and spiritual growth. Really, much of online church is what already happens in the so-called “real” physical church…audiences and consumers.

Even some of the younger people of the church do not find this online expression to be very satisfying. That’s actually a good thing. In a day and age where there is great concern regarding disconnection, that the technology-embedded generations recognize a difference is a good thing!

The reality is that all of us are looking at ways to develop and maintain community while we are physically distanced. Small groups online is the way we are going to all have to go, and it will not be the most comfortable or the most incarnation we think or feel it ought to be. That’s okay.

Online church services and online small groups may online be for a short time. It also may be for a long time. We don’t know. There are currently denominations/traditions/regions/local churches that have chosen, for example, to not celebrate the Eucharist together. There are others who are bending their theology to allow some sort of communal Eucharist celebration. There are others who have no theological issue with online communion at all. Most of the longtime online churches have that theological perspective.

This is a time of learning. What needs to be done to be the church? What does it mean to be part of the church when we are distant?

One of the things that this is teaching us is that how poor our Bible teaching has been. It’s probably better to say, how poorly have we empowered and encouraged people to pursue Christ through reading the Bible in discernment on their own. We have, it seems, overly centralized God’s word. For those who object to the term “self-feeding”, I do agree to an extent. Yet, this shows why it is so important to create some form of “self-feeding”.

Without decentralization, we would have never been gifted Paul’s words. Think on that for a moment. When Paul wrote he was away from (or never even met) the churches he wrote to. This isn’t that new.

In the American Western Frontier (from the 19th century) there were the Methodist Circuit Riders. They existed because the people were disconnected from one another. They went around to deliver the Word of God and the Eucharist, and to baptize. What has been utterly fascinating is how much the American Church has forgotten that. The Church of the Nazarene came from much of that, as many of our churches are in very rural areas, which is odd having been started on the streets of Los Angeles in the “wrong” side of town.

Perhaps, we have lost what it means to be connected. This might also be an echo what the USA is experiencing in its current cultural and political climate. We are disconnected from one another, even in our own neighborhoods. Perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning in the current COVID situation is that we are disconnected and we don’t know how to be connected.

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