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Open-Air Preaching: 8 - The Best Methods

By Edwin Hallock Byington


      I have thus far emphasized the prominence given to open-air preaching in the past and present, especially in Great Britain, and the various forms in which it is used. The following suggestions as to the best methods to be employed are not based simply on my own experience, but also and mainly on the experience of others, as narrated in the reports of the Open-Air Mission, which run back nearly forty years and include each year records from scores of places all over the world. I have gathered much also from pamphlets and books, especially Mr. Kirkham's "Open-Air Preacher's HandBook," and Mr. Spurgeon's lectures to his students on this subject; from my own observation in different parts of Great Britain; and from my conversations with many successful open-air preachers.

      I offer these suggestions with the full knowledge that in this kind of work every man should be a law unto himself and that any attempt to follow blindly a set of rules is apt to result in dismal failure; but I am equally certain that much of the disrepute into which open-air preaching has fallen in some communities is due to zeal without knowledge, and that many blunders and failures would have been prevented by a little wise counsel.

      The manner of conducting open-air services demands careful consideration because the preacher, having greater freedom, is more liable to error than at an indoor gathering where ordinarily little is left to his judgment--the hour, the speaker's position, the number and order of the parts, the character of each and the length of the entire service, being established *usually by custom. But in the open air he must decide these details each time for himself, according to the ever-varying circumstances of the occasion.

      His task, moreover, does not consist simply, as at a church service, in impressing the truth on hearers who have assembled and who will tarry until the close. He must be able also to gather an audience and keep it. If he fails in these, his entire effort is in vain. One Sunday morning in London, I saw a man preaching on the street without a congregation. His words may have been winning and his thoughts impressive, but he had erred so in the selection of the locality, time, and his position that the gathering of an audience was an impossibility.

      Frequently workers succeed in drawing but fail in keeping those who come. Such a misfortune I witnessed in Nottingham, where some young men had collected a company, but unwisely had chosen a location where they were liable to interruption. Suddenly the counter-attraction appeared, and soon after these young men, deserted by their audience, could be seen with their Bibles under their arms disconsolately retiring from the field of battle. Had they used better judgment they might have continued successfully to the end.

      The open-air preacher must do some things to attract and others to keep his hearers. Many lose sight of this in criticizing words and acts that have no direct spiritual import, forgetting that these may be a substitute, often a great improvement too, for the clanging church bell ; or that they may have the same function as four walls, a roof, closed doors, and cushioned seats, namely, to keep the audience while the truth is being presented. As such they should be judged.

      But while these two objects must be sought, it never should be forgotten that they are only means to the one great end, which is the making of spiritual impressions. This must ever be kept in the view of speaker and hearer alike.

      The belief that improprieties will be overlooked in the open air is entirely erroneous. Unusual methods are justifiable and among them many condemned by ecclesiastical fastidiousness ; but improprieties and especially things coarse or irreverent are altogether out of place and harmful. Mistakes are likely to produce evil consequences, for the audience often contains many in whose heart the smoking flax of faith burns so low that a very little will quench it; others who are prejudiced against the church and are ready to have that prejudice intensified, and others glad to find in some mistake material for their irreverence and justification for their evil ways. Surely of open-air preaching also it may be said : "and therefore, is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God."

      THE NEED OF PREPARATION.

      Though in this work much is necessarily extemporaneous, careful preparation should not be neglected. Let the physical life be developed, for a vigorous delivery is most important, and that comes naturally only from a man possessed of good health and some physical vitality. Though it is not necessary to make Samsons of ourselves, we should be able to stand firmly on our feet. A weakling can get along by grasping a chair to steady himself, or by resting his body on the back of a pew or on a pulpit, but he should not try speaking in the open air until he can stand alone and have some surplus energy for use in speaking.

      Scholarly and elaborate discourses generally are out of place, but thoughtful presentations of truth are necessary for effective work. "Anything will do in open-air work" is taken from the devil's Book of Proverbs. The hand-organ style is too common. The good man has his "experience" or "testimony" or sermonette, and when he is started he grinds it out exactly as he has given it scores of times these many years. Men should come rather each time under the inspiration of a new truth or a clearer perception or deeper realization of one before known. The temptation to say the same thing in the same way is especially strong because the audiences vary so greatly. But yielding is fatal to a man's best influence. While I have heard some speak in such a way that it seemed as though they must have run all the way from the fountain of life, the water they gave was so fresh and sparkling, what others offered was stale and tasteless, and I did not wonder it was refused though offered without money and without price.

      Every sentence should contain a message. The sword of the Spirit should be flashing constantly. In a church we have a man before us an hour and we may hope, however poor the effort, that something in that time will reach him. But in the open air many remain only a moment, and if that moment is barren of spiritual results, the opportunity is lost. Therefore should the open-air preacher study diligently the Bible, making special preparation for each effort and constantly gathering material for future use. Also let him study human nature,. become familiar with history, especially the lives of Vjlesley, Whitefield, and other great open-air preachers, read newspapers, gather illustrations, commit to memory apt sayings, become familiar with great truths. Of great value are the conferences of open-air preachers. Attend them. If there are none, introduce them. Even after the most thorough and conscientious preparation seldom will a man find himself fully equal to the demands and opportunities of this kind of work.

      The spiritual preparation, however, is the most important, and again comparing, I say more important than for the conduct of public worship in the house of God. There the consciousness that we are standing on holy ground, the solemn stillness, the influence of sacred associations, the reverent multitude and the music tend to arouse and intensify spiritual emotions and exalt the soul. But in the open air the passing of the multitude, the noise of the traffic, the covered heads, and the innumerable distractions ever present tend to dissipate spirituality. The lamp, which in a closed room lights all, without can do little more than reveal its own presence. We need more of "that light" to illumine our own souls and to shine forth so clear and so strong that those in darkness may be able to see the path of life. Spirituality is the open-air preacher's first and greatest need. "This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting." Universal and invariable should be the habit of gathering for prayer before starting out.

      RELATION TO LOCAL AUTHORITIES.

      If the law does not allow open-air services, secure all possible endorsement and approach the authorities with a reasonable request, not asking everything, but simply permission for certain limited hours, places, and persons. If these meetings are conducted properly, an extension of the privilege will not be difficult. If the first request is refused, repeat at suitable intervals, avoiding a manner liable to antagonize. Quiet persistence and influence will prevail ordinarily. Yield to the police always, making complaint subsequently at headquarters, if there is just ground.

      When public grounds are refused, private property can often be secured, such as vacant lots, lawns, meadows, where the police have no restrictive control. In a New England city, under such circumstances, an open lot adjacent to the park was rented and proved perfectly satisfactory.

      THE LEADER.

      Mr. Kirkham says, "A leader is essential." He should lead to the place, arrange the workers, conduct the opening exercises, call upon the speakers, quiet disturbances, direct the distribution of tracts, look after enquirers and close the meeting. Thus the speakers and singers are relieved from distracting responsibilities. Of course the leader cannot do all these himself, but he should see that each thing is done by some one and properly. A ridiculous performance occurred in Victoria Park, London, one Sunday afternoon when several speakers stood looking at each other and saying, "You speak next," "Oh, no, you," etc. While they were settling it, the audience scattered. Let the leader see that the meeting moves along without delay, always having a hymn ready in case there should be hesitation anywhere. All should place themselves under his direction, and should instantly, without protest, accede to his wishes. If there is any objection, it should be offered afterwards in some less public place.

      THE TIME.

      Ordinarily go when the people are at leisure. On Sunday little can be done before eleven, and during the week the noon hour and the evening alone offer profitable opportunities, except on holidays and special occasions. Darkness is a help rather than a hindrance. Often larger audiences can then be gathered, and some people cannot be reached at any other time. A street lamp or torch will supply light enough, but even these are not necessary. In every place, an hour Sunday morning, another in the evening, and another during the week, are occupied by the regular church services. Do not hold open-air gatherings during these hours. Clear summer weather is most advantageous. Let us not, however, earn the title of fair weather Christians. Spurgeon says: " In Scotland, I have heard of sermons amid the sleet, and John Nelson writes of speaking to 'a crowd too large to get into the house, though it was dark and snowed,' " and in another place, Mr. Spurgeon writes of his own experience in preaching in the rain. Mr. Kirkham, referring to the text, "Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?" says : "I have frequently preached on the snow in a double sense, i. e., standing upon it and talking about it." I find many allusions in the Open-Air Mission reports to successful meetings in stormy weather, and of conversions "when the snow lay on the ground." A certain English evangelist invariably precedes his "meetings in winter and summer alike by half an hour or more of open-air work" In New York City, the "open-air service continued with hardly a break during the year" at the Broome Street Tabernacle. Of course these are exceptional cases, but they warn against being over particular about the weather. In a populous district where many spend all their leisure time on the streets, a service preliminary to an indoor meeting is apt to draw more on a stormy day than when the weather is fine. People also are impressed with an earnestness whose ardor is not quenched by a little rain. As one said: "You're a downright good 'unto come after us such a day as this." "Be instant in season, out of season."

      It is entirely a mistaken idea that the American climate is so unfavorable that open-air preaching cannot be sustained here successfully.

      THE LOCATION.

      Go where the people are, and choose a place where it is natural and easy for them to come. In every locality are places where people will readily congregate and where more can be gathered than at any other place, as in ponds there are "spots" or "holes" where fish are abundant, while a few rods away the line will dangle all day without a bite. Observe and experiment until these places are found.

      If in the country, a hillside with the speaker at the foot is desirable, allowing the voice to rise to the audience. Vast numbers can thus be addressed. In a town choose the village green for large gatherings, lawns and piazzas for smaller meetings. In the courts and alleys of a city, stand near the houses, so that people can hear without being seen. An English minister writes concerning his experience in this kind of work : 'I have known many persons quietly pass into houses near which I have been expected, on purpose to listen to the preaching, who would not allow themselves to be seen attending any kind of religious services." If the audience is to be drawn from a crowded city street, find a spot, not on the thoroughfare nor in the crowd, but very near them--aside street, a vacant lot, an open square, a few rods from the throng. In parks and at all public gatherings the same rule applies--very near the crowd, but not in it ; but beware of large open spaces where the company will look insignificantly small. Choose a corner or some place where even a few will look like a crowd. The foot of a large tree offers an excellent position unless there is a strong wind. Such places are very popular with speakers in the parks of London.

      Make it comfortable for the audience so that they will stay. If the day is hot, try to find a shady place for them ; if there is a cold wind, let them stand on the leeward side of a wall or building; if it storms, find for them a shed, railroad arch, or some sheltered corner. Never compel them to stand with the sun in their eyes.

      A wall behind the speaker helps the voice, and Mr. Spurgeon gives this advice: "Preach so that the wind carries your voice towards the people and does not blow it down your throat, or you will have to eat your own words." Always stand upon some elevation -- a curbstone, step, box) chair, platform, anything to raise you above the people. This is very important. Otherwise, only a few can hear with comfort, but if the speaker stands on an elevation, and the people gather close about him, several hundred can come within range of an average voice and heartily enjoy the service. Church yards and steps are excellent if the people will come, because the preaching is linked more closely with the church life, and freedom from certain kinds of interruptions and independence from municipal authority are secured. Every evening during several months of the year such services are held in front of Newman Hall's church in London.

      GATHERING THE AUDIENCE.

      Sometimes notices in church and newspapers, distribution of hand-bills and personal invitations are sufficient. Often other means must be tried. If alone, take a stand and commence to read the Bible aloud. If skillfully done this may secure a nucleus for an audience. Mr. Davis of Cardiff says: "I find this brings a crowd together better than singing." Or, commence a conversation with some who may be standing about and include in your words others as they draw near. A successful Liverpool minister, following the example of the churches, rings a bell which he carries in his hand, until an audience assembles. Many use a banner with the name of their organization upon it, or a passage of Scripture, or a picture which can be used in the address ; at night a torch or lantern with lettering on the glass answer the same purpose. "Mr. Edwin Carter of Liverpool has drawn crowds by showing dissolving views in the open air." Dr. Samuel Fairbank reports concerning his work in India: "The audiences secured by reading, singing, and preaching in the streets are usually small. If such an audience numbers fifty the preacher is well pleased. . . . For many years I used a magic lantern of the old style and found it a great attraction. Practice taught the way to use the pictures instead of texts and to preach short sermons on the subjects illustrated by the pictures," Having secured a better instrument which would throw on the screen a picture eight feet in diameter, he adds : "I have counted as well as I could in the dark, and have found that our audiences usually number 300 or 400. In each of two large villages there were six hundred." Instrumental music always attracts; so does a chorus. Children's choirs have proved a success.

      If there are several workers, some invariably should stand in front of the speakers to form the front row. Here is a work for those who can neither sing nor speak; and a most important work it is. People are unwilling to stand close to a speaker and directly in front of him, and consequently often the audience stand a long way off or on one side, or even behind him. One day I drew up to an open-air meeting, and suddenly became conscious that I was alone in front, facing a preacher, a Bible reader, several musicians, and a large chorus, all of whose gospel earnestness seemed to be concentrated on me. I stood it for a moment and then fled ignominiously. I can stand preaching to a crowd or listening with others, but to have a whole company preaching at me, while England looked on, that was too much. However, I did as the rest had done before me. I came around in the rear and enjoyed the service; whether the preacher did with all his audience behind his back, I do not know. Had a few of his helpers formed a row directly in front at the proper distance, all the audience would have gathered behind them.

      Having attracted an audience, cease trying to draw and concentrate every effort on retaining those who come. Once started, the crowd will do the drawing, and the size of the audience will depend upon their being interested enough to stay.

      SINGING.

      If there is to be singing, a cornet, horn, or some other musical instrument is desirable. In Great Britain a melodeon on wheels is often taken to the place of meeting. Hymn-books may be passed about, but even better are printed sheets upon which are hymns and perhaps a few verses of Scripture and an invitation to some house of worship. Distribute liberally and let them be carried home. In parts of England the leader often, instead of reading the entire hymn at once, reads each verse separately just before it is sung. Familiar hymns should be chosen, not necessarily only the "lively" tunes, but also the grand old hymns familiar from childhood to many, and doubly impressive by reason of associations. Mr. Double of Hoxton tells of a young man who rushed excitedly from a saloon to oppose the preaching, but was silenced by the hymn, "There is a fountain filled with blood," saying, "I can't stand that -- it was my mother's." If the singing is good, let there be plenty of it ; if not, the less the better: if decidedly weak, total abstinence is best. Singing is not essential. If attempted, however, it should be strong, hearty, and spirited from the first. Unless it is, the audience will not join Though not necessary, a large well-trained chorus and a good orchestra are greatly to be desired. The Charrington Mission of East London send on Sunday afternoon their military brass band of 30 pieces to Victoria Park. In the evening these are divided into four companies and occupy as many different stations. Of course large numbers gather about them, as they also do in Hyde Park about the large choir under Mr. Charles Cook's leadership. Sometimes quartettes and solos are sung effectively, and one worker says that when one of the ladies sings a solo "hundreds of people gather round, and thus many hear the gospel sung, who would never walk a yard to hear the best speaker." Ordinarily, however, the aim should be to inspire others to join in the singing. Let it be remembered that singing 'is not simply to attract. Its spiritual power is great.

      PRAYER.

      Though preparatory prayer never should be omitted, prayer in the open air is not always desirable. But a short reverent prayer, very short and very reverent, generally should be offered. It bids the people look from the creature to the Creator more emphatically than can anything else. A Scripture Reader at the close of a meeting was addressed by a man who afterward became an earnest Christian. During the singing and speaking he had become very angry and "picked up," he said, "a large brick from the building close by to throw at you; but the prayer you said made me feel so strange that I put the brick down, and before I knew what I was about I had spoken to you, and am glad I did so."

      The one offering the prayer should remove or raise his hat, and if others do not do that, they should by closed eyes, bowed head, hand raised to the face, and perfect silence, indicate their reverence. Sometimes an audience will join in the Lord's Prayer. That is well.

      SCRIPTURE.

      Read something short and interesting, a parable, miracle, incident, message, something complete in itself. Avoid argumentative, obscure, or long passages. Do not hesitate to read several times, nor on the other hand to omit altogether the formal reading of a Bible lesson. Use constantly, however, quotations and incidents from the Bible. In a church the Scriptures are assumed to be the foundation of the discourse; here, it must be shown. Avoid, however, affectation in the use of the Bible; it .is growing quite common. Large limp-covered, broad-margined Oxford's are for study, not display. A small book is best. Do not make a show of turning to every passage mentioned, and reading it, nor is it necessary to give book, chapter, and verse of each quotation. Quote accurately and be ready to state where it is found. One man in preaching where there were many Romanists could not read the Bible without antagonizing his audience; but he could and did repeat to them from memory long passages of scripture. In reading, be thoroughly familiar with the passage. Running comments are effective if brief, pointed, and pithy. Too often they are mere paraphrases, weakening rather than intensifying the truth of the words read. Few can do this successfully and none should attempt it without careful preparation.

      NOTICES AND COLLECTION.

      If the service is preliminary to an indoor gathering, or if there are to be other open-air meetings, notice to that effect should be given clearly and with a warm invitation. If it is not declared by a banner or printed slip, announce invariably a place wnere the workers can be found subsequently, in case any are awakened and desire more light.

      One summer, my church, the Eastern Avenue of Springfield, transferred the evening service out-doors and followed the regular form including the collection. No harm came from it. But where the audience consists of strangers ordinarily it is not a profitable undertaking, as we are apt to receive little and to lose our audience, for at the announcement their hands go into their pockets and they saunter innocently down the street.

      THE ADDRESS.

      Have a text always. It need not be called such. It need not come at the beginning, but let the whole address concentrate itself on some short, striking passage of Scripture. Repeat the text frequently. Let anecdotes, experiences, arguments, appeals rain down like sledge-harntner blows, driving this wedge of God's truth into hard hearts. Avoid texts needing explanations and limitations, because the audiences change constantly and late comers will misunderstand the text and its application.

      Have a plan in the discourse, but not so as to make the effect of one part dependent on another part being heard, A grand climax at the end built on preceding arguments generally is not effective. Clinch every nail as it is? driven. Follow each argument and illustration with a practical application or an appeal.

      Use liberally quotations and illustrations. Few can hold an audience without them. Mr. Spurgeon thus advises his students : "In the street a man must keep himself alive and use many illustrations and anecdotes, and sprinkle a quaint remark here and there. To dwell long on a point will never do. Reasoning must be brief, clear, and soon done with. The discourse must not be labored or involved, neither must the second head depend upon the first, for the audience is a changing one and each point must be complete in itself .... Short sentences of words and short passages of thought are needed for out-of-doors." On the other hand, avoid making the sermon a series of stories, or simply a personal experience or zealous appeal. In everything let there be a truth, a vital burning truth,--a truth illustrated if need be, a truth experienced, a truth applied, but always a truth, which should be constantly before the speaker's mind and which the hearers should always feel. Mr. Kirkham thus warns against a kindred danger: "I have heard street preachers try to catch and keep a street audience by a succession of odd and amusing stories, told apparently for the sake of showing the preacher's smartness. This is a vice to be reprobated."

      Ordinarily the preaching should be evangelistic, its aim conversion. Though the addresses all lead up to "repentance towards God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ," monotony is not a necessity. "All roads leads to Rome," but they start from ten thousand different places. Even if all sermons should lead to conversion, the good brother need not, as is the manner of some, always choose the same starting point and travel the same road, as though there were none other. Of almost equal importance are addresses to backsliders. Open-air work has been singularly successful in reaching this class.

      In nothing is the famous orator's emphasis on the importance of "action" more pertinent than in this kind of speech. An earnest, impressive manner and expressive and forceful gestures are valuable. "In the streets a man must from beginning to end be intense." Another says, "Life, fire, and energy are essential as the powder is essential to carry the shot."

      A manuscript, of course, is out of place. Brief notes are allowable, but undesirable. Memorizing a discourse generally neutralizes the magnetism of personal address. Mr. Kirkham says, and wisely, "I know of no better plan than to prepare an outline ; and leave to the Holy Ghost on the one hand, and to the occasion on the other, to clothe i with suitable words." All the rules concerning the culture o the voice and its use in public speech are pertinent. Thi special dangers in the open air are pitching the voice too higl and shouting. Almost every beginner does this. Accustomec to the resonance within a building, the speaker not hearing i in the open air feels as though he were making no appreciable sound, even when he can really be heard a long distance. Be gin in a low, quiet, conversational tone, and increase the vol ume gradually, if the people by their manner indicate thei: inability to hear. Generally, however, it is not more soun( that is needed but better enunciation and less rapidity. Ai astonishingly large number can hear a person with a comparatively weak voice if only he speaks distinctly and slowly, li any case it is more profitable for a few to hear the gospel explained in a natural voice than for a multitude to listen t( the frantic screams of an ambitious herald. Avoid turning th( head too much to either side. Sending the sound in anothel direction throws parts of the audience out of the range of the voice.

      THE ORDER AND LENGTH.

      Brevity and variety are the two essentials. Several short addresses are better than one, even where there is only one speaker. "I find," says one man, " the best way to hold a company for any length of time is to give short addresses of five or six minutes' duration between the verses of some favorite hymn." Judgment based on experience and the circumstances of the occasion alone can determine whether the service should last five minutes or five hours, and what prominence should be given to each part. "Prove all things. Hold fast that which is good."

      INTERRUPTIONS.

      These things must be from a child's merry laugh to a brickbat. Sometimes it is wise to continue in spite of all interruptions, but ordinarily if circumstances appear which are certain to destroy the spiritual influence of the gathering, adjourn to another time or place. "When men are drunk," says Mr. Spurgeon, "there is no reasoning with them, and of furious Irish Papists we may say the same. Little is to be done with such unless the crowd around will co-operate, as they oftentimes will." One of England's oldest and most successful open-air preachers told me he never appealed to the police, but always to the crowd, who invariably responded, even going so far as to duck the intruder in a neighboring pond. "A little mother wit is often the best resource, and will work wonders with a crowd." Spurgeon tells how Gideon Ousley, when preaching in the open air, transformed an Irish mob into an attentive audience. "I want to tell you," he said, "a story about one whom you all respect and love, the Blessed Virgin." "Och," was the reply, "and what do you know about the Blessed Virgin!" "More than you think," he answered, and proceeded to tell of the marriage at Cana until he came to the words, "Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it." Then he preached his sermon on what Christ tells us to do, taking up the cardinal doctrines and enforcing each exhortation by the Virgin's counsel to the servants at Cana.

      Do not enter into discussion with any in the audience. Answer questions frankly, and, if discussion seems desirable, offer to meet the man at the close of the meeting. Do not be diverted from the simple preaching of the gospel. Above all, followers of Christ never should lose self-control, nor, however great the provocation, indulge in loud, angry, threatening language.

      CLOSING.

      If an indoor meeting is to follow, say nothing until the end, then give the notice and start instantly before the people commence to scatter. Many sing as they go. If the company is large enough this is very desirable. If possible the workers in starting should go not away from the crowd, but through them, thus "stampeding " them, as it were.

      If there is no after-meeting, make every effort to discover and help any who may have been touched. Invite the people to tarry for personal conversation. Seek out any who seemed particularly interested. Distribute tracts and accompany each with a Christian greeting. While abstaining from impertinent questions, watch for a look, a grasp of the hand, a word indicating a readiness or desire for further conversation. Here are the opportunities of leading men to a decision for Christ. These moments after the meeting, these personal conversations, are by far the most important part of the hour. Very many open-air preachers sin terribly in neglecting their opportunity and duty at this time. It seemed to me the weakest point in open-air work in many places in Great Britain. The moment the services close, each one should search for some one needing Christian sympathy and help.

      IN CONCLUSION.

      After all suggestions have been considered, remember that a sense of the fitness of things and dependence upon the Holy Ghost are the two essentials to success. As the Holy Ghost told Paul where to go, what to do, how to speak, so must He be our guide and strength, if we would fight a good fight.

      The End

Back to Edwin Hallock Byington index.

See Also:
   Open-Air Preaching: Introduction
   Open-Air Preaching: 1 - Open-Air Preaching in the Establishment of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 2 - Open-Air Preaching in the Extension of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 3 - In the Reformation of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 4 - In the Normal Life of the Church
   Open-Air Preaching: 5 - The More of It, the Better!
   Open-Air Preaching: 6 - As A Factor in City Evangelization
   Open-Air Preaching: 7 - Who Will Go For Us?
   Open-Air Preaching: 8 - The Best Methods

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