Starting Fresh: An Interview With James Merritt Michael Duduit March 1, 2004 Most pastors with church memberships of 12,000-plus would laugh at the thought of leaving and planting a new church. James Merritt didn’t laugh, and today he is pastor of the new Church at Cross Pointe in one of the fastest-growing areas of suburban Atlanta. Merritt is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and hosts a weekly television ministry called Touching Lives. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently had an opportunity to visit with Merritt at his new church facility. Preaching: As pastor of the First Baptist Church in Snellville (GA), you were leading one of the larger churches in the region, preaching to more than 3,000 people each Sunday. Now you are in essentially a start-up situation. What led to this, your decision to leave a large, established church and start a new work? Merritt: We had spent almost eighteen years at Snellville, had a great ministry. The people are tremendous, wonderful people. God did a lot of great things there – far beyond anything I ever dreamed I would be capable of doing on my own. But in Gwinnett County, the real strong growth is towards the northern part of the county. So several years ago I had gone to the church with a plan. The vision was always to reach the most people that we could for Christ but the plan was that we would go up north of the county there – Snellville is in the south end of the. We would start in a school or something with a couple hundred people. Do it just like any other church start: start in a school, try to get your legs under you, maybe eventually buy some property and build a multi-purpose building. Grow incrementally. So I was going to attempt to pastor one church at two locations. What happened was this came about – the situation changed drastically with 71 acres and 360,000 square feet of buildings right off of interstate 85 here in Atlanta. A piece of property that was on the market for over $20 million originally was bought for $9 million by some very wonderful, good, godly men – who gave it to us. What I quickly realized as all of this was coming together was the Lord began to move in my heart. I just did not feel like I could do justice and give leadership to Snellville – which is already a mega church – give it the kind of leadership it needed as well as give something as massive as this the kind of leadership that it needed. So I prayed it through, talked it through with my wife, my family – they all unanimously agreed they felt in their own heart that this was something God was leading us to do. I’ve never planted a church in my life. Don’t know a whole lot about it. But you know, God just gave me a passion for it. And with all due respect to Snellville, I believe that we are in a location or situation where I’ve got the opportunity to do more than I was able to do in Snellville. I pray that will be the case. Snellville is still a great work but I just felt like this was an opportunity that I could not afford to pass up. Preaching: What size group have you started with here? Merritt: We started out with a core leadership group of about 200. We’re now averaging about 850 since we have been meeting a few months, so we’ve had real good solid growth. No question that we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us from financial to infrastructure to leadership development, etc. but that’s all a part of start-up. It’s very exciting. The spirit of the church – I say this will all humility – I’ve never pastored a church with a greater spirit than with the people we have at Cross Pointe. And of course anything new – it doesn’t matter if it is a new job, a new marriage, new church, whatever – there’s that sense of excitement and it’s great to be a part of it. Preaching: With the facility you’ve got right now as you go through renovation how many do you anticipate that you’ll be able to have in a worship setting before you build anything else? Merritt: Our first phase calls for a 1600-seat worship center. So obviously with that, with the educational space we have, with the parking space we presently have, we feel like in one service we could easily run 1500 people or so. So in multiple services – before we do anything else after phase one – we probably could go to 2000 or 3000 people. Eventually once we complete all these facilities – which would call for everything from a 6000 seat worship center to children’s, preschool, youth, and adult educational space, etc. – we believe we could run in multiple services here 12-15,000 people if not more. That’s the potential here. Preaching: With the excitement of starting this new work and the spirit of a new work, how is it impacting your preaching? Are you doing some things in your preaching ministry to speak to the situation that the church is in right now? Merritt: Yeah, in two or three ways. Number one, we’re trying to really target a younger generation. Well over 90% of all professions of faith in this country occur by – I’ll be generous and say 21, it’s probably closer to 18. The average age of conversion now in America is closer to 13, 14 years of age – the youngest it’s ever been. If that is true and then you couple that with the great commission, then obviously we believe we ought to be putting our primary resources toward trying to reach the next generation. So our primary target would be millennials and their parents. So along those lines we use a more contemporary style of music. It’s more of a casual atmosphere. For the first time, because of our capabilities, I’m going to use a lot of media, video, that kind of thing. Two things for me have not changed. Number one, I still do biblical exposition on Sunday morning verse by verse. Number two, there is still a clear presentation of the gospel and then we give people an opportunity in different ways, creative ways to respond to the gospel. One of the things I have done in my preaching is more through the years – a tip I picked up from my good friend Rick Warren – I try to make my messages, my points more practical, more action-verb oriented. I do believe that people can do biblical exposition – true biblical verse-by-verse exposition – on Sunday morning to a younger generation and I think it will stick, and I think it can be relevant. You can make it work; you just have to work hard at it. I’ll give you an illustration. I’m in a series of messages right now I’ve entitled “Shockingly Refreshing.” I picked up the idea when we all come back from Labor Day we’re all psychologically a bit down. There is something inside of us that says, “OK, no more vacation until Thanksgiving, summer’s behind us, got to get to work.” It can be a little bit of a let down because we just came out of a situation where we have Memorial Day, you go right into the Fourth of July, you’ve got a week or two vacation. You kind of get used to that, then all the sudden – BOOM – you’ve got September, October, November and there’s no day light at the end of the tunnel. So I came out of that with the idea that I would do a series on how do you handle overload? How do you overcome overload? How do you overcome stress? And how can you face weeks of all work and no play? So out of that I developed a four part series of messages that I’ve been preaching. This Sunday the title of my message is “The Ultimate Refresher” – I’m preaching on the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. So it’s a doctrinal sermon. Here’s what I’m saying: if God indeed is sovereign, if God is in absolute control of our lives and if nothing happens apart from the fact that either God calls it to happen or God allows it to happen – and either way knowing that He will work it all out together for my good – then concerning yesterday I can turn bitterness into blessing. No matter what people did to me yesterday, no matter how unjustly I was treated, God obviously used it and God allowed it for my good. Case in point – Joseph. Another practical application I can make from the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is not only concerning yesterday – can I turn bitterness into blessing – but concerning today, I can turn worry into worship. Cast all your cares upon Him because He cares for you. Well God is sovereign, God is in control. And I automatically know something: no matter what happens to me today nothing will happen to me that God and I can’t handle together. So I can replace worry with worship. Then concerning tomorrow I can replace fear with faith. Because no matter what happens tomorrow I already know God’s in control. We’re being told that we can’t preach doctrine I don’t believe that. I think that we need to preach more doctrine. But I’ve taken doctrine and I’ve created a message that will be practically applicable to any generation but especially to a younger generation that is probably facing as much overload as any generation in history. So those things about my preaching ministry have not changed. On the other hand I’m more determined than ever to do everything I can to communicate to a generation which – unlike the generation I grew up in – does not accept the concept of absolute truth, that does come to the Bible with a lot of questions, that is continuously asking the question, “that’s all great and that’s all good but so what? how does that help me hack it on Monday?” And I’m trying be more sensitive in that area of my preaching. Preaching: In this particular series are all the sermons doctrinal in nature? Merritt: No. Well, yes and no. The message I did last week was out of 1 Peter 2:1-3 and the title of it was “Got Milk?” Where Peter talks about milk of the Word. If you want to call it a doctrine, it was on the doctrine of Bible study and the importance of reading your Bible. I even made the statement that of all the series of messages this is the most important one because no matter what else you do – no matter what you take from the other three messages – if you don’t put into practice what I’m going to tell you today then none of the rest of it works. I do believe the greatest weapon and the greatest resource we have to handle stress in our lives is getting a hold of God everyday in His Word and letting God speak to us. So out of 1 Peter 2:1-3, I said that there are three things that you must do consistently if you are indeed going to let this book be a maximum benefit to you. Number one, we must develop a hearing for the Word of God. Peter begins that chapter by saying, “laying aside all malice, evil speaking,” The reason why Peter did that is you don’t only read the Bible with your eyes – you read it with your heart. If you’ve got a dirty heart, the Bible will be a closed book to you. Psalm 66:18 says if I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me. In other words, if I’ve got a dirty heart I can’t talk to God until I get rid of that dirt. The same thing is also true the other way around: God won’t speak to me. If there is sin in my life God’s says I’ve got nothing to say to you until you get rid that sin problem in your life. So I must develop a heart for God’s Word. Number two I must develop a hunger for God’s Word, like a new born baby’s desire for the milk of the word. I talked about practical ways that you could develop that hunger. Then number three, we must develop a hearing for God’s Word. The point I made is that there are only two kinds of babies that don’t have any hunger for milk – sick and dead. If you don’t have any hunger for the Word of God then it doesn’t mean you’re not saved necessarily, but if your saved you’re a sick Christian and you need to develop an appetite. But it may be the reason you don’t have an appetite for God’s word is because you’ve never been saved. You’re not a new-born baby. You’ve never been born again. Preaching: You mentioned the reality of the generations that we’re dealing with now, the lack of commitment to absolute truth. Within your own preaching ministry, what are you doing to try to communicate with that world view? Merritt: That’s a great question and my answer, quite frankly, may surprise you because it would be different than what some other people would say – people that I have a high regard for and a lot of respect for. I think the first thing a pastor must never do, is lose confidence in the power of the preaching of the Word of God. So with all due respect, I don’t really start with felt needs; I start with God’s Word. Because I believe that God’s Word not only meets felt needs, I believe God’s Word will uncover needs that people don’t even feel. I’ll give you an illustration. I don’t believe that sinfulness and the need to deal with sinfulness is a felt need in a person’s life. If it was, our churches would be crowded next Sunday with people who would say, “I’ve got a sin problem and I want to get rid of it.” The fact of the matter is there is a world out there that’s sinning, having a great time and enjoying it. So it’s not a felt need. You have to show them why that needs to be a need in their life. So I begin with the understanding that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword and the truth is still able to cut and penetrate whether a person believes it’s true or not. The sun rises in the east whether you believe it does or not. And if you’re facing west tomorrow at nine-o-clock it’s going to shine on your back – whether you believe it or not makes no difference. I believe the same thing is true about truth. So I always begin with a foundation that the Bible is the Word of God and I believe that truth can penetrate even the hardest heart. The second thing is that it is important that we creatively think about how can I show how this truth is relevant and how this truth is real and how this truth is practical and how this truth can make a real difference in my marriage, in my job, in my relationship with my kids, and how I feel about myself. I preached a message not long ago out of Ephesians 1 and I called it “The Secret of Self-Esteem,” just out of the first six verses of Ephesians chapter one. You’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to think about it, you’ve got to keep asking that question: “so what?” You don’t make that the all-in-all but ultimately you should be able to answer that question. Jesus always could. That’s why He told parables. When Jesus told a story you understood the “so what.” The parable about the rich man and Lazarus – so what? You better get right with God before you die, so what! Or a parable about the sower. Well, our job is to get out there and sow the seed and let God worry about the sowers. So you’ve always got to answer that ‘so what’ question. I think the third thing is that we cannot shy away from apologetical preaching. I mean that in a technical sense. You always preach from a standpoint of giving a reason for the hope that lies within you. It’s not unreasonable to believe in God. It’s unreasonable to not believe in God. It’s not unreasonable to be a person of faith. It’s unreasonable to be a totally secular person. But you show why that is true. Preaching: You’re in an suburban area of Atlanta that can no longer be called the Bible-belt. These affluent suburbs are filled with secular professionals, corporate types, and I’m sure that you have an interesting mix of folks every Sunday. Are you adapting your style in order to communicate the gospel with these folks that may be different than what you did twenty years ago? Merritt: Let me preface by saying I don’t compromise truth in doing that and I don’t compromise the preaching of the word of God but I think in everything . . . For example, years ago I would have never dreamed of seeing people come to church in a t-shirt, pair of shorts and tennis shoes. That would have floored me twenty years ago. Where I believe we need to come to today is you can either get up and harangue people for dressing a certain way when they come to church and you can get up and preach on short skirts if you will or what have you – and you can make a point and lose the very person that you’re trying to reach. I still preach on sin – absolutely. Do I still call right, right and wrong, wrong? Absolutely. But the key to it all is to communicate what we say in love and in such a way that we’re trying to build bridges and tear down barriers. You can’t remove the offence of the gospel. The gospel is an offensive message. You can’t remove the exclusivity of the claims of Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life, no man comes unto the Father but through me.” You cannot remove the biblical condemnation of that which is wrong and the biblical affirmation of that which is right. Therefore you have to speak up against the sin of homosexuality and you have to speak in favor of heterosexual marriage. But at the same time you do it in such a way where: a. you make people realize this is not the unpardonable sin; b. we’re going to love you whether you are homosexual or heterosexual; and c. we’re going to love you enough to preach the truth to you. I’ll give you a practical, real-life illustration. I had two ladies come see me in this building. These ladies were former lesbians who started coming to Snellville – they give me permission, by the way, to share this testimony so I’m not talking out of school here. When they first visited Snellville it was very obvious who they were and what they were. I immediately got a hold of the right people in our staff and said, “Do not give the names of these people to anybody but me. I want these names.” The average layperson is not equipped to deal with them; the average layperson either wouldn’t know what to say or could easily say the wrong thing and they could misrepresent our church in some way. I didn’t want any of those things to happen. I took it. I went out to see them with my brother. Sat down with them, we had a nice chat and then I very lovingly but very firmly said, “Look, let’s not play games – if there’s an elephant in the room we’re going to do the elephant in the room. We both know the life style that you are living. I want to say two or three things upfront to you. Number one, you’re welcome to come to our church every Sunday. We’re glad you’re coming. Number two, we will love you and treat you with kindness and courtesy. Number three, I want you to know that you’re going to hear me tell you that God loves you just the way you are. (And they liked that!) As for number four, I’ll also love you enough to tell you that God loves you too much to let you stay that way. You will hear that from the pulpit from time to time as the message calls for it. I won’t go out of my way – I’m not a one-horse-Johnny – but you will hear me say that what you’re doing is wrong.” And I said, “Now I want you to understand there are other churches out there that will tell you what you’re doing is right, that God made you the way you are, there’s no problem. I can even recommend two or three of those churches but I want you to know if you come to our church you will hear the truth.” They said, “Well, that’s why we want to come. We do want to hear the truth.” To make a long story short, I led one of those ladies to the Lord that very night; I led one of them to pray and receive Christ. Over the course of about eight months, maybe ten months, I visited them maybe six or eight times. The last time I went by to see them I asked them, “How you doing?” I said I’m praying for you. The last time I went to see them the other person who had not been saved invited me to come in – which they hadn’t done before – so I went in and I sat down and we talked a little bit and she started tearing up. She said, “I’m ready to receive Christ.” I said, “Now before you do, you understand that you’ve got to give up your lifestyle.” What they said next just floored me. The other lady that I’d already led to Christ said, “We’ve done that months ago.” She said they knew it was wrong. “We’re not sleeping in the same bedroom anymore.” And she prayed to receive Christ. Then the lady said to me, “We want to ask you a question. We no longer have this type of relationship but we’re sisters in the Lord and we love each other – she’s like an aunt to my daughter. Do you have any problem with us continuing to live together?” I said, “No, I don’t, as long as you will do what I’m going to ask you to do. I want you to go to every friend and every neighbor around here that you know and I want you to bear witness of what’s happened to you and let them know that you are no longer living this lifestyle, you’re living a celibate lifestyle, and you’re now living just as ordinary as two normal women.” And she said they’d be glad to do that. They came to see me about four months ago. They said for the time being they won’t be here because they’ve got some obligations to stay at Snellville but they said, “We’re living pure, living clean, and we just want you to know that we just thank God for you everyday.” The point being, speaking the truth in love still communicates even to the secular, anti-Christian, un-biblical culture that we’re living in today. And I still believe that. Preaching: Tell me how you go about planning your preaching. Merritt: I’ve done this the last couple of years but especially this summer. I took a part every day of my vacation and just began to plan out my messages – trying to plan out what do I want my people to hear. For example after I finish this series, I’m going to be preaching a series of messages in Nehemiah because that’s where our church is right now. We’re right where Nehemiah was. We’ve got some walls that desperately need to be rebuilt. It’s a daunting task. It’s going to take unbelievable faith, resources, man power, sacrifice. I need to really take our people back to a man that faces similar situations – what I face as a leader and what we face as a people – and say, “OK, they had a wall to rebuild, we’ve got buildings to renovate. Along the way while we’re doing that, let me just tell you that we’re going to get opposition, we’re going to get criticism, there are going to be doubters and yet at the same time you’re not going to believe how Gods going to give resources we didn’t even know we had, open doors we didn’t even knew about.” Then we’re looking at doing something like 40 Days of Purpose because I think that would be a real shot in the arm for our church. Then, because of where we are as a culture, I’m thinking right now about doing a series of messages in Ecclesiastes. I don’t know that there’s a book in the Bible that’s more relevant. Just what you said – we’re no longer in the buckle of the bible-belt. Right here where I’m sitting is one of the more affluent areas in all the state. Ed Young wrote a book on it years ago – Been There, Done That – and that’s where Solomon was. We live two miles from the most exclusive neighborhoods in this whole state, where major golf tournaments are held, million dollar homes – Solomon could very easily say, “You know, I’ve been there, done that, and if that’s where you’re trying to find your meaning in life you’re walking down a dead end street.” I’m having more fun preparing messages right now than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not a very creative person – I don’t think I am, I’ve never seen myself that way. But when you say, “I am going to take this book of the Bible and Lord, with your help, open up my mind to see things I’ve never seen before and think things I’ve never thought before. Lord, show me how to make this series on this book of the bible a series that a 25 year old would say, ‘I’ve got to hear that.’ And then, Lord, lead me to the right illustration, lead me to the right media support, lead me to the right this or that, that would really help that come alive.” That’s what I want to do and it’s really exciting to do that. It helps me to approach preaching from a totally different perspective. Preaching: Tell me about a typical message on Sunday morning. What would we see if we came to Cross Pointe next Sunday? Merritt: Like I was saying it is casual dress now because we’re meeting in a school. I don’t have a classic pulpit, so to speak, which has not been a really been a big hindrance to me at all. One thing I’m enjoying using now – I don’t know what you’d call it but it’s the little mike that comes around your ear! You know what I’m talking about. Well, I really enjoy it. It gives me a lot more freedom. I don’t have the clip-on mic anymore. It makes me feel like a punk rocker I guess – I don’t know. Preaching: Garth Brooks. Merritt: Yeah, Garth Brooks – that’s it! Anyway, I do take a full manuscript into the pulpit with me – always have. Adrian Rodgers used to say the week you stink is the strongest memory! But I don’t read it. What I do is dictate my sermons and have them typed up. I print it off and what I usually do on Saturday is basically I’m proof reading the first time through, making any corrections that I want to make. Then I print it out again and I go through and I highlight certain key words, key phrases – those become like landmarks to an airplane pilot. A pilot looks down and he can see this landmark and he knows right where he is, he knows right where he’s been, know where he’s going. That’s what I do. I use notes but you don’t really notice since I move around a lot, walk around. So I give much of the appearance of a totally extemporaneous preacher while I’m using notes. And then I don’t look at that message again until Sunday morning. The next morning I don’t read it – I look at my highlights and I give my self basically a running test. Do I know what’s before and do I know what’s after? I know where I’ve been, where I’m going and I do that about one time and then I come to the church and I’ll preach it. Then, of course, it’s all filed. My normal preaching time you can just about set the clock to it; it would be 35 – 38 minutes. That hasn’t varied over the years 5 minutes either way. I haven’t varied for 95 percent of some of my sermons for 15 years probably. If you come hear me preach you’ll hear an expository message. You will hear the literal gospel presented: Jesus Christ died for your sins, He was buried, three days later was raised from death. What you won’t get every Sunday is necessarily a come-forward invitation. I give a public invitation, but if all you do is give a come-forward invitation, you’re limiting yourself to only one way of a person responding. You’re saying you’ve got to do it this way or forget it. And I think you’re elevating coming down the aisle of the church to a level that I don’t believe the New Testament ever elevates. I don’t believe that we ought to take a practice that was introduced by Charles Finney and elevate it to the level of scripture. There is more than one way to respond to an invitation publicly. So, for example, a person checks off on a card I responded I prayed to receive Christ and tells his spouse on the way out the door, tells the person that invited him today, “I responded and gave my heart to Christ.” Well, he is publicly professing his commitment. He takes that card to what we call an encourager, telling that encourager, “I want you to know about this decision for Christ today.” That’s another way to do it. So am I giving an invitation? Yes. Am I giving a public invitation? Yes. Do I always give a “come down the aisle” invitation? No. I’m not against it but I do not subscribe to the traditional view that if you don’t always give a come-forward invitation you’re a heretic or there is something wrong with you or you’re selling out. I don’t buy that. I think that we ought do everything we can to grease the skids for people to come to Christ. No matter how you put it, no matter how you say it, I think sometimes we do give people this idea that if you don’t walk down this aisle in front of 8,000 people then you really don’t mean business with God. I’m sorry I don’t know where I can find that in the New Testament. I think you’re asking a lot – not the impossible – but you’re asking a lot from an un-churched guy who has never been to church in his life and his wife nagged him for twenty years before he decides to come. Let’s say he comes twice and wants to receive Christ and then you tell him, “Oh, by the way, not only do you receive Christ – now if you really mean it you’ve got to walk down in front of 8,000 people you don’t even know.” Is there anything wrong with him doing that? No. Is there anything wrong with them asking him to do that? No. Is there anything wrong with doing it another way? I don’t think so. I’m doing the same thing basically but instead of asking you to walk down an aisle in from of a bunch of people I’m simply saying, “As you leave there are encouragers on the way out – please hand that card to an encourager and feel free to talk to one of them.” I think I’m doing the same thing and I think it could be more effective. Preaching: Who have been the most significant influences on your preaching? Merritt: Without question Adrian Rogers, has been my mentor. Jerry Vines – I learned a lot about preaching from Dr. Vines. Learned a lot from Swindoll – and this is important – about the timely use of illustrations. Many preachers don’t have a good filing system so they don’t have access to illustrations like they ought to. A lot of pastors are just so glad to get an illustration that’s good because they have trouble finding them, then they just stick it in the message and hope it floats. I try to develop the art of using illustrations in a timely fashion. I’ve got an unbelievable illustration I was looking at it today. You may know the story. You know the cross that was discovered at Ground Zero? Well, I’ve got an unbelievable story about that cross. Quite frankly, that story illustrates something about the sovereignty of God but as I read it and I thought about every thing else I had in my message, I decided you know that I’d rather use it when I’m preaching a message on the cross itself. So I I didn’t use it. I thought to myself – in fact I was chuckling – I thought to myself, “Boy, you’re giving up a great closing shot in that message!” I don’t think this is any crime, just a factual observation, that 99 out of 100 preachers would probably use that illustration Sunday. I won’t, not because it wouldn’t be good or maybe even timely but it wouldn’t be best and the most timely. That’s what I’ve learned through Swindoll. He uses illustrations but when you read it in the context of his book or his message you realize, “Man, Dr. Swindoll’s got the right place and the right time to use it!” So he’s been a great influence. Then Max Lucado’s been somewhat of an influence, from the standpoint of how he uses his imagination to turn a phrase. Stephen Olford I’d have to put in there just because he is such a stickler for real true biblical exposition and getting the most out of it the text. He’d be in there as well. Preaching: What do you know now that you wished you would have known when you were starting out as a pastor? Merritt: If I had it all to do over again I wish I could have been more of a visionary and seen more of the need to always be on the cutting edge of reaching the next generation. I think that’s the first thing. The thing I also wish I’d known earlier is speaking at a bunch of places and traveling a bunch of miles is not all it’s cracked up to be. If I could go back 15 years – this is a conservative estimate – I would not have taken 50% of what I did. I wouldn’t have traveled fifty percent as much as I traveled or gone to fifty percent of the places I went to. The third thing: years ago I took no more than two weeks of vacation and only one Sunday. You can’t get rested in that amount of time. I now take basically the month of July off. Any pastor, I think you just need to get away. I would have taken more – I did take time off with my family. I can honestly say I really did tow the line like any daddy that thinks he needs to spend more time with his family, so I did that as well. The other thing I wish I would have known is the church won’t die without you. Particularly when the kids were off and I had more time to enjoy them being out of school, I would have taken more time off with my kids in the summer. Tell you one other thing I’ve learned – and thank God I didn’t have to learn it the hard way – not every battle is worth fighting, not every hill is worth dying on, and I think one of the keys to real leadership is the ability to discern between the two. Which battles are really worth fighting, which are not? Which hills are really worth dying on and which ones are not? As I get older, Mike it surprises me the battles worth fighting and the hills worth dying on become fewer and not more. 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