What challenges does the church face today?

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What challenges does the church face today?

Last week thirty denominational leaders met at Claremont School of Theology for the second major meeting in the “Transforming Theology” series (see here for details).  There will be various posts arising out of this fascinating meeting — stay tuned to this link for updates.


One thing the denominational leaders did agree on:  “mainline” churches have undergone a steady decline in membership for several decades, and the situation has now become critical for many of the mainline denominations.  (The situation in evangelical churches is different; I will address it in a separate post.) Huge numbers of congregations are now fighting for their survival, and many will close.  Some experts predict that as many as two-thirds of the mainline congregations that exist today will close their doors over the coming two decades.


Why?  What in the American situation has changed so radically that once prosperous churches and denominations would now be struggling in this way?  Of the many causes, nine in particular strike me as especially important.  (The first two points were suggested by my colleague and frequent co-author Steven Knapp, and I have quoted his words):



(1) “People no longer believe that church attendance is socially necessary, that is, necessary for the social health and perhaps even the economic survival of individuals and their family, either because churches provide the only context for social interaction or because they are necessary to the relationships on which careers and businesses depend.”


(2) “People no longer believe that church attendance provides the only or the most important means of establishing and maintaining a sufficiently strong connection with God, however such a connection is specifically understood (for example, in terms of salvation, spiritual health, a life of meaning, etc.).”


(3) Many of the institutions that once lay at the center of our society are equally endangered (Boy Scouts, Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, Kiwanas, Masonic groups, etc.).  As a society, we generally don’t join institutions anymore; instead, we stay with family and friends, use electronic entertainment, shop, or go online.  For how many people today is church coffee hour the social highlight of their week?  Many people prefer to watch reality TV in order to see humans “as they really are.”


(4) The classic modes of church teaching — reciting language together and listening to a man talk for twenty minutes — are no longer effective modes of communication for Americans.  (Classroom teachers today show videos, or at least PowerPoint.)  For many, hymn-writing and hymn-singing no longer have the force they once did.


(5) The traditional church was a family unit.  It included not only mom and dad and the three (six?) kids, but also the grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc.  By contrast, today there are fissures even in the nuclear family.  No longer centered on multi-generational family units, mainline churches struggle to retain their members.


(6) Most of us do not live in one place long enough to put down real roots.  When three generations of your family were hatched, matched, and dispatched in your local church, that was a pretty strong magnet to keep you involved.  Now families may move seven times or more before the kids leave for college.


(7) Our communities are not only continually in flux but massively diverse in their beliefs, values, and social identities.  Church communities in the U.S. used to be highly homogenous; difference was dealt with by having a huge number of churches.  With fewer churches left, there will now be a greater variety of income, class, education, ethical conviction and political belief in a single congregation.  That makes people uncomfortable, and they are voting with their feet.


(8) Pastors today are generally not viewed as moral authorities in their communities, and theologians do not speak for and to the nation.  Paul Tillich’s Courage to Be was a bestseller, and Reinhold Niebuhr was on the cover of Newsweek.  Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis was a national bestseller for three years beginning in 1907.  Church leaders and theologians no longer play that prophetic role in today’s world.


(9) We are no longer blending powerful theologies with transformative ministries in the world.  Churches and denominations that are actively involved in “social justice ministries” are often unable to give a theological rationale for their actions that people find moving and compelling.  By contrast, the theologies that move people tend to be more privatistic, focusing more on individual salvation and individual religious experience, or more concerned with separating the church from the world and defending the superiority of Christian belief over its competitors.


In short, the beliefs and institutions that once motivated church attendance and involvement are now under attack, and many are crumbling.  Effective answers to the current situation will require us either to revivify the older beliefs and institutions or to invent radically new forms of Christian community.


More on this soon…


Dan Ra

June 4, 2009at 12:23 pm

Mainline Churches are dying because they are White American Christian institutions. White American Christianity is dying, while minority ethnic churches are booming. I wish these figures took that into account as well, including the ones by Newsweek, etc. Maybe the solution is for Mainline Churches to reach out to ethnic minorities (who will become the majority by 2050, they say). But in order to do so, they need to be the sojourners to ethnic minority Christian communities, not the ones inviting the minorities to come.

However, what you write makes sense for newer generations of American-born citizens, white or non-white. I’m really wanting to see what completely non-institutional, subversive, WESTERN Christianity looks like. I hope I can see it in my lifetime.

Eddy E

June 4, 2009at 1:24 pm

Dan I think you’re on to something in that many/most mainline churches are predominantly white. From my vantage point (which is fairly limited), the mainline church may value and even talk a good talk about seeking cross-cultural, cross-economic relationships, but the church has barely moved in that direction. A few reasons for this seem to be that 1. mainline churches are very wary of change (more-so than evangelical churches); 2. they recognize that engaging in multi-ethnicity will shrink their numbers even further–(I’d say true in the short term but so much life for the long term).

But I think there is more to it than just that mainline churches are white. I agree with Philip’s reasons. My concern (and though I don’t attend a mainline church, I do hope for revival in the mainline church) is that the leaders of the mainline churches have been talking for years, maybe even decades about shrinking numbers and that the church is on the verge of extinction, and yet nothing has changed. Pastors need to practice more courage in leading their congregations toward change.

I’ll say one last thing why I hope that the mainline church doesn’t die but is renewed: Internationally, it is so impressive what the mainline church has done and has influence to continue to do. Whether it is seminaries, bible colleges, churches, social services, etc… we have much to thank God for his work through the mainline church.

Jim Marks

June 4, 2009at 1:46 pm

UGH. your website just ate a very long comment by throwing an error without giving any recourse to recover it. This version will be a lot more terse and probably sound more critical, as a result.

Your point #3 is true, in one sense. People today are certainly less likely to be “joiners”. But your characterization of why is dismissive and patronizing. Not to mention the fact that it completely ignores the reality that certain segments of Christianity are experiencing explosive growth. Why not focus more on why those groups are succeeding while mainliners are dying and less on the rampant apathy amongst the segment of the population that no church, no matter how perfect, could ever hope to get through the front doors?

Mike L

June 4, 2009at 2:10 pm

I am a pastor of a mainline denominational church – and I’m white. Two things I find interesting in the discussion. First is the need for denominational churches to survive. God isn’t asking for church survival – he wants Christ-followers. The biggest issue is that we are too focused on the institutional survival because calling people to follow Jesus is the harder message to declare. People will walk away from that message (just as many did with Jesus… 5,000 fed one day – 120 in a room at Pentecost?). I tell people often that God does not care if the walls of our church remain standing and nicely painted. If the church survives but we aren’t following Jesus we may just hear the words – “Get away from me, I never KNEW you.”

Secondly, I agree with the need to engage cross-culturally, but I disagree with some of the points raised. First, why is it that “white-American” worship is inferior or unworthy of the attention of any other ethnic group, while ethnic worship is being touted as authentic and true? There is this overwhelming sense that white folks must be the ones to make the move toward others – and I understand that, but if they don’t will others do nothing to take a step the other way?

Further, it was stated that whites will continue to become the “minority”. This is only true if you lump every non-white person into one group and thereby make whites the “other” people (all people of color on one side, whites on the other). This is done far too often and serves only to further demonize those who are born with white skin. The reality is that whited are becoming a minority in the same sense everyone else is in that there is not majority. Whites won’t be A minority, they will be ONE OF a collection of minorities. The question I have is this – when whites become one of the minority groups, will it then be necessary for other groups to “sojourn” toward us?

It seems white Christians are judged for their failures and not reached out to with grace from those who are seemingly more engaged with God. Must we earn the right to be ministered to by others?

Our church is engaged with reaching others for Jesus. If we hold up a denominational name it will be a by-product not a goal. I would be honored if others would be willing to join us and help us find our way.

Philip Clayton

June 4, 2009at 2:50 pm

Thank you all for your intelligent comments. This is the level of discourse — in churches, in seminaries, in denominational headquarters, and online — that is necessary if we are to be productive in helping to bring about change. I don’t have to tell you how rarely we really achieve this.

Like Mike L., and I think like Eddy E., I don’t think the question is PRIMARILY about race. Dan, couldn’t I generalize your concerns by saying that we must not focus exclusively on just one segment of the church? Isn’t white-centered thinking just as limiting, and hence just as dangerous, as male-centered, upper-middle-class centered, or America-centered?

Above all, I want to endorse Jim Marks’ comment about the segments of the church that are growing. My call, coming out of the summit meeting of denominational leaders that we organized in Claremont last week (see link at top of my post), is to combine a sober analysis of the changes in American culture today with a close look at “best practices” in congregations (see Diana Butler Bass), pastoring, inter-church partnerships, denominational innovation, etc. This is why I’ve invited emergent church leaders into the Transforming Theology meetings and conversations, and it’s why we’re working to partner with Tony Jones and Brian McLaren for two major conferences together in 2010. Mainline pastors, denom. leaders, and theologians cannot afford to villify the evangelical churches when we have so much to learn from them. (See an earlier post.) I advocate a “big tent Christianity” in TRANSFORMING THEOLOGY (Fortress, September 2009) because I believe the mainline can preserve some of its historical strengths while embracing many evangelicals as allies.

The question my post didn’t quite ask, and none of you have yet attempted to answer, is the really hard one: are the nine changes that I’ve identified SO significant that the traditional structures and practices simply won’t continue to serve us over the coming few decades? Put differently, HOW radical do the changes need to be to respond to the reality of the situation that the mainline is facing today?

— Philip Clayton

Bruce Reyes-Chow

June 4, 2009at 2:56 pm

Thanks for keeping us in the loop. Is the list of participant published somewhere. I think that might help to see the context out of which folks are speaking. Disclaimer is that I was invited to be part of this group, but couldn’t because of scheduling and want to know who is representin’ the presby crew! Thanks – Bruce

Philip Clayton

June 4, 2009at 3:30 pm

Bruce, thanks for your post. (For those who don’t know him, Bruce Reyes-Chow is Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA); click on his name to link to his blog.)

I’ve just posted a new blog entry with a list of the participants, so that you and others can see who was here.

There is significant momentum among leaders to work together so that we can manage the change that is even now racing, tsunami-like, toward us — to the extent that anyone can “manage” changes of this magnitude. Will you and other PC(USA) leaders work with us to “rekindle theological imagination” in a way that will lead to transformative Christian action in churches and in society?

— Philip Clayton

James Murray

June 23, 2009at 5:33 pm

A lot of our theologies in the mainline church have become so academic and deconstructionist that many people in the pews end up thinking ‘the minister doesn’t believe in the bible’. We need to articulate a reconstructive process theology which is positive, understandable, and relevant. When will someone write a ‘Process theology for dummies’?

Last week the United Church of Canada held its annual conference on worship, liturgy, preaching and music, called “Worship Matters”. The most contemporary worship service was held coffee-house style, using Bruce Cockburn’s “Wondering where the lions are”. As good as Cockburn is, that song is 25 years old. We need to learn how to relate to people where they are at, musically, culturally, relationally. The old model of ‘ believe, behave, belong’ no longer works.

Philip Clayton

June 23, 2009at 6:09 pm

James, that’s exactly right. I’m working round the clock these days on the new book, “Transforming Theology.” Challenging the old model of ‘believe, behave, belong’ is an important part of the book.

I’m not sure Fortress will go for it, but I want to give it the subtitle, “Why You don’t Have to be a Conservative to Have Powerful Christian Convictions (and Talk about Them Too).” Part of the joy of leaving “modernist” assumptions behind is that we can give up the myth that it’s wrong to have passionate convictions unless they’re grounded first in science or philosophy. Why is it okay to be passionately evangelical and not equally okay to hold passionate Christian convictions that are progressive?

The second step, after discovering our convictions, is to give them theological expression. When mainline churches again become places where powerful theological reflection takes place in both pulpit and pew, watch out! It will be a time of renewal, of revival, of growth, and of passionate activism.

— Philip Clayton


July 15, 2009at 5:23 pm

Thank you for this post and these replies. It almost seems like we’re putting the “mainline” church through CPE in the hopes that it can grow and develop into something better. And this is exactly what we need to be doing. We need to take a serious look at ourselves and be willing to change the problematic parts and improve on the gifted parts. In the end, what we’re going to have to realize is that the mainline church will need to become the postmodern church. To avoid being abstract, here are a few examples of how we can become more postmodern:

Dialogue over doctrine. Poetry over creeds. Fluidity over structure. Spirituality over programs. Practical over abstract. Inclusive over exclusive. Town hall meetings over monologue sermons. Communal salvation over individual salvation. Facilitative leadership over dictatorial CEO-ship. Tossed salad over melting pot. Relational church over mega church. Holistic mission over limited engagement. Navigating ambiguity over forcing certainty. Bible discussions over Bible classes. Restorative justice over condemning judgement. Artistic expression over barren staleness. Passion over solemness. Theologian-of-all-believers over potifications from on high. Fun over formal. Joy over sullenness. Shared authority over consolidated authority. Visual over wordy. Local engagement over systemic outrage. Real over flowery. Open over reclusive. Creative sermon events over preditable sermon lectures. People over buildings. Present over past. Doable over theoretical. Interactive over boundaried. Circles over rectangles. Pentecostal over frozen. Chairs over pews. Diverse music over singular-style music. Diverse liturgies over singular-style liturgies. Spiritual groups over work committies. Modern-yet-ancient over contemporary-yet-1980s. Contextual over universal. Youth engagement over youth estrangement. Celebration-through-lament over suffering-through-masking. Brain-storming over narrow-mindeness. Movement over stagnation. Cultural inclusiveness over cultural imperialism. Barstools over pulpits. Comprehensive over lectionary. More CPE over less CPE.

Philip Clayton

July 15, 2009at 7:29 pm


That’s a powerful message — you’ve woven 30 ideas into a two-paragraph post! I’d like to do a blog in the future that opens with your “X over Y” litany. It powerfully evokes a postmodern church, a church of the future.

The hard question is how to get there from here. Think of Mike L’s comments above. He is not going to fight to save institutions; following Christ is more important. But he pastors an existing church. It’s not going to just disappear and leave a hole for him and some others to start afresh. Do we reform the structures that are already there? Do we form new structures? Do we imagine a church without structure altogether? (Wouldn’t that become yet another version of “the invisible church”?)

These are the questions that thread through all the posts above. We’re now preparing a major proposal for the Lilly Endowment on “best practices” in missional ministries as they are now emerging outside the context of existing institutions and then gradually working their way into church ministries. The hope is to help turn people’s attention in some new directions, where we think God is doing some exciting things. But how radical should we go?

— Philip Clayton


July 16, 2009at 12:44 pm

The postmodern church will be radically contextual. It will look different in each place. That is the point. There might not be any universal elements that will work well in all places. Each of the practices I mentioned will get embodied in different ways. Here are two examples of communities that are doing organic, postmodern ministry and worship:

Liberation Christian Church

Nu Vizion

Saint Brendan’s Celtic Community


July 16, 2009at 3:30 pm

If we take A.N. Whitehead out of context, he seems to speak to this discussion: Churches “require some element of novetly to relieve their massive inheritance from bygone system. Order is not sufficient. What is required, is something much more complex. It is order entering upon novelty; so that the masses of order does not degenerate into mere repetition; and so that the novelty is always reflected upon a background of system…The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order…[The Church] “creaves for novelty and yet is haunted by terror at the loss of the past, with its familiarties and it’s loved ones.”

Tim Thompson

October 1, 2009at 7:10 pm

Good discussion. Too many great thoughts to follow!

Re. the original question “Why? … what has changed..?” to account for the decline, I offer this analogy.

Consider a pond. It grows larger when the inflow exceeds the outflow.

Mainline denominations (like my own Lutheran tribe) previously grew through immigration from the old country and childbirth. (My believing parents had 6 children: 400% church growth!). In addition, societal pressures “herded” people into church as a necessary entry point into civic community, as you noted in point 1 of the initial post.

All of these have changed and no longer feed people automatically into our congregations. The “tributaries” have largely dried up. One additional tributary is conspicuous by its absence: Evangelism. It seems never to have been a substantial feeder to the mainline pond. It’s been easier to rely on the other tributaries.

On the outflow side, there has also been change. People still die, of course, presumably at more or less the same rate. (If anything there’s been increased longevity which prolongs the life of the pond.) What’s changed is the erosion of the banks that have kept the water in place. The pond “leaks” like never before. Again, this is related to the sociological landscape you mentioned in 1 above. It is no longer a scandal for people to leave the church and have no formal “institutional” spiritual life.

So: less inflow, more outflow; shrinking pond.

Tim Thompson

October 1, 2009at 7:17 pm

Re. your second question: “HOW radical do the changes need to be to respond to the reality of the situation that the mainline is facing today?”

Pretty radical I’d say.

For starters, we’ll have to discover how to do evangelism in our current context. Just doing evangelism at all will be a big leap for a lot of us! (Among Lutherans, it’s often noted that we invite someone to church, on average, once every 20 years. Maybe 30.) Add to that the fact that our context is radically different than what we’ve known and it’s a tall order.

But more than that, I think we need a radical revision in the way we “do church.” (That really should be “the way we be church” which is unfortunately awkward to say.)

Conventional congregational life – across the denominations and across the decades of decline – centers around a weekly large group gathering. For most, this is their primary if not sole experience of Christian community. Yet in these gatherings, it is essentially impossible to experience the “one anothers” that are truly at the heart of being a people sharing a life of faith together. That kind of substantive community requires smaller groups to flourish.

We invest vast amounts of time, energy and money into maintaining a weekly event, in the hope that substantive community will arise around it.

We need to invert that. We need to invest primarily into nurturing small, self-reproducing faith communities where people actually grow as disciples. That’s a radical change.

Whether this results in larger gatherings arising from the small communities or not is secondary, icing on the cake.

Can existing, conventional congregations can make that kind of transition? It seems doubtful, though it would be exciting to try. Whether they can serve as a launching pad for new expressions of Christian community seems more likely, and I’m hopeful there. But whether they can or not, I think these communities are on their way, thank God. We need them. We have a lot of Kingdom work to do!

Philip Clayton

October 2, 2009at 8:51 am

Dear Tim,

Powerful comments. Many top Christian leaders now are writing on new ways to do and be church. We are devoting the TransformingTheology.org website to this discussion as well (which arose out of a Ford Foundation grant last year aimed at strengthening the theologies behind progressive Christian action in society). In March we’re doing a conference on “Theology After Google,” which examines the role of new technologies and new forms of social networking in transforming what it means to be church. And in September Brian McLaren and I are organizing a summit meeting of people working on the crisis and possible solutions. Please watch TransformingTheology.org for updates. I’ll use that site and this site to make the key developments public, so that people can respond, contribute (and criticize!) in real time as they’re happening.

There are so many committed Christians who are thinking about these issues and who are ready to take radical action to help the church through the coming revolution — such as the people who have posted above. It gives me hope. Above all, I trust that the grace and providence of God is adequate to lead us through. But it’s going to take some courage and hard work on our parts as well.

— Philip


January 24, 2010at 9:01 pm

I am an asian living in the US now. I grew up in a mainline church most of my life but have also experienced pentecostals and evangelical churches.
Mainline churches have the richest of traditions and best of theologies that I have studied. The failure has largely happened because the traditions or theologies were not communicated or taught to the next generation properly. Even as other denominations took away the congregation mainline churches simply went into a reactive mode trying to ape others or becoming defensive. They tried giving up their traditions, they tried modifying them, they tried defending them.
If only theology and tradition had been taught properly at sunday school why would be in this mess today ?
My question is : even if this transformation theology comes up – will it meet the same fate that earlier theology and tradition ended up with ?


January 24, 2010at 10:19 pm

to answer Philip’s question :

“are the nine changes that I’ve identified SO significant that the traditional structures and practices simply won’t continue to serve us over the coming few decades? Put differently, HOW radical do the changes need to be to respond to the reality of the situation that the mainline is facing today?”

After 35 years in the church , I dont think any radical change is required to renew the church.
There is a LOT of meaning already in the traditional structures. Just tell the laity verbatim when and why these came into being in the first place. If there are multiple viewpoints tell us all of them. If you do not know it yourself please go back and find it out. No more exegesis needed from ministers. Laity can figure things out by themselves.


January 25, 2010at 9:21 pm

Even though this is an old discussion I just saw it coz the link was circulated in another group. I’m an Indian, live in India and am a watcher of the “Church” in its myriad forms around the world for decades, and am broadly evangelical by conviction. I offer anopinion based on these observations on how th Church in India has evolved or dealt with these changes. The “mainline” churches do go about thier business as usual, and there is still some growth because of demographic reasons – we are an increasingly “younger” society. Also there is some effort to take on current concerns of Christians and many theologians, both younger and some older, do try to make interpretations conteporary and relevant. But there is some erosion in the quality of leadership in the mainline churches, the perception, whether justified or not, is that those who have a greater appetite for power-play and questionable tactics get into position there. In recent years – say the past couple of decades – there has been a growing evangelical movement among young people and women, and more and more of them are active in the less organised church, which shows explosive growth as a result – I think there are issues in the US such as colour and gender which manifest differently here. Another reality is that the more traditional churches have had a larger section of upper-middle class populations, whose younger lot have largely migrated out to the west or the Middle-east for work, and usually don’t come back. Thus the traditionally excluded – poorer, lower caste background populations who have been coming into the church in droves are mostly found in the non-traditional churches, under leadership they are more comfortable with, rather than the moer traditionally privileged groups who tend to be found in traditional mainline churches.


July 7, 2011at 11:50 pm

We can not deny the development history of religious how long, it is not a technology people or so the beliefs of the technology it, people always think that the god will bless, but with some of the occurrence of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and so on a series of fire ‘disaster, when people body and mind pain, some people gradually to the god lost faith, no longer believe the god, and this is the development of the future for religious exist great influence

LIOMBE; Cameroon-Buea

February 28, 2012at 6:37 am

Speaking from the African context, the church is having the difficulty of meeting with the rapid chanching technological move. Also the spirituality of these days is having a hugh difference with that of the 50s. Take just music and dancing style for example.

There must be a blend to keep all together


July 20, 2012at 1:31 pm



July 20, 2012at 2:05 pm



September 2, 2014at 3:36 pm

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as yours lol

Leulseged Alemayehu

October 2, 2015at 8:37 am

This a very good point. And, I personally admire all the points and the reply. In addition to those points, for me the fundamental reason for the challenge of today church is two.

1. Lack of Growing in the likeness of Chrsit.
We saved by grace. Yes. But, that is not the whole way of Christianity. After being saved by the grace we have to go a long way of change for the realization of our salvation. 2Pet 1 . 10Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every
effort to confirm your calling and election. For
if you do these things, you will never stumble,
11and you will receive a rich welcome into the
eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus
See after being saved by grace that is not the end. It requires our effort with the help that grace to grow in the likeness of his character, power etc. But, we Christians are not doing that. 7Have
nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’
tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.
8For physical
training is of some value, but godliness has value
for all things, holding promise for both the present
life and the life to come. 9This is a trustworthy
saying that deserves full acceptance. 1Tim 4. So, we are willing and doing all the necessary effort to grow in the likeness of Christianity. Hence, unless the likeness, the power, the character of Jesus Christ revealed in our life the church will die. On the other page there are churches growing and flourishing in many ways. Just ask why? There is no ready made christian.
2. The church has lost its dynamic nature, practicing the Power of the Holy Spirit and the gifts.
lovers of pleasure
rather than lovers of God— 5having a form of
godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to
do with such people. 2Tim 3:4
Today’s we Christians we are not satisfied with the pleasure we get being with God, finding our selves where God is. We are more prone to pleasure that is secular. I mean the Lord created everything on this earth for our pleasure. But, most of our money time and resource are scheduled for the pleasure that we get from nature. But, we do have very few time or we do not have time to stay with the Lord in prayer and fasting. Remember Jesus he has time to stay with his father in prayer sometime the whole night, some time from evening to the mid night, some time from the mid night to day break. And also he is fasted for 40 days and night with out food and water and pray. Look being perfectly God and man, he give himself for prayer practice. Are looking the power of God in our life as Jesus did

mr. Bulabo. peter

June 25, 2016at 1:27 am

the topic is very interesting but it should be agreed that pentecostalism is growing faster than the mainline due to an open fact that it goes perpendicular with the neo-world cultural and social pattern than the conservative catholicism.

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