When the Popular Youth Pastor Gets Arrested Again

The city of Birmingham, Alabama, has been buzzing in recent weeks over the second arrest of the city’s most well-known youth evangelist. Matt Pitt, founder of The Basement, first ran afoul of the law in the early 2012 when he was arrested for impersonating a police officer while flashing blue lights at cars on the interstate. Pitt pled guilty and continued to lead his large ministry, which had as many as 7,000 in attendance at monthly gatherings, until a warrant was issued for his arrest two weeks ago. He was arrested again last week and now sits in jail for violating his probation. Why was he booked this time? He impersonated a police officer a second time, though in this case he flashed his honorary sheriff’s badge at a concerned resident while telling him that he was police officer.

Until last year, the press for Matt Pitt, 30, had been overwhelmingly positive. His testimony began when he left college in 2004 because of a drug overdose. At the end of his rope, he cried out to God while lying on the floor of his parents’ basement. Pitt says he is not exactly sure what happened in that moment, but he wanted his friends to experience the same thing. He met with a few friends in the basement of his parent’s home for prayer and Bible study. Within a year, more than 100 cars lined the street as crowds worshiped in the basement of the Pitt’s home. They later moved from church to church, only to find that they outgrew every venue. 

The Basement attracts teenagers with high-energy music, stirring dramas, and Pitt’s rapid-fire style of preaching. He has described himself as “an ADD kid trying to reach an ADD generation.” The crowds made him famous. He has been featured on CBN and TBN. The Basement moved to monthly meetings to accommodate Pitt’s busy outside speaking schedule, and the crowd began meeting at one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the United States, Church of the Highlands. They left that location in 2011 to meet in large civic venues in downtown Birmingham. So in a short period of time Matt Pitt went from praying with some guys in his basement to one of the nation’s most prominent youth evangelists and then to being arrested twice in 18 months.

How Did This Happen?

As a pastor in the Birmingham suburbs, I have been drawn to this story. But my fascination has little to do with his arrests or the bizzare 12-minute local news station interview where he compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and accused the police of targeting him when he started reaching “black kids.” Nor am I mostly intrigued by the drama of that same TV station reporting his parole violation to the police, who chased him down after he jumped off a 45-foot cliff. Instead, I want to know how we got here. How did this happen? 

Southern church culture, including Birmingham, celebrates nearly anyone who claims to reach teenagers. We often assume the inherent goodness of any ministry that draws large numbers. And we idolize reaching the next generation to the point that we largely ignore what we are winning them with and what we are winning them to. Despite warning signs, youth pastors continued to take busloads of teenagers to The Basement and Christian radio relentlessly promoted Pitt’s meetings.

All the while The Basement’s theology was largely ignored. Viewing the videos on The Basement’s website reveals an exciting atmosphere that lacks substantial understanding of God as revealed in his Word. Pitt’s sermons might have been “in your face,” but they did not point teens to the Bible and the gospel message revealed in it. Much of the public also ignored the Bible’s teaching about character in leaders because Pitt claimed to have a “calling” from God to lead this ministry. And who could question his results?

But internal calling is only part of what it means to be a gospel minister. The apostle Paul insisted that a man who would lead must not be a new convert. He knew young leaders can become puffed up with conceit and fall into the snare of the Devil. Unfortunately this concern seems to have been valid in the case of Pitt, as members of his board said he refused accountability as more mature men sought to mentor him.

Southern churches rightly desire to reach teenagers, as we should want to see every person in our region come to Christ. But this aim will not be accomplished with a more exciting atmosphere, louder music, and a central charismatic figure who can rouse teens. Churches would better reach the next generation if they emphasized compelling biblical preaching and intergenerational discipleship, and if they empowered parents to teach the gospel to their own children.

Our teenagers do not need someone who can put on a great show so much as they need people to love them, teach them, and model the Christian life for them. Such faithfulness would do more to grab the hearts of our teenagers than a large, loud event ever could.

* * * * *

Editors’ note: Learn more about the kind of churches we need in the American South when you attend Engage the South, an Acts 29 conference hosted in Birmingham by Beeson Divinity School and co-sponsored by The Gospel Coalition. This one-day event on September 24 features talks from Matt Chandler, David Platt, Bryan Loritts, Kevin Smith, and Ray Ortlund.

  • http://www.larryfarlow.com Larry Farlow

    Good reminder that God’s criteria for leadership are there for a reason:

    “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” I Timothy 3:6

  • JohnM

    Good piece here. Take two comments in particular –
    “Southern church culture, including Birmingham, celebrates nearly anyone who claims to reach teenagers.” and “Much of the public also ignored the Bible’s teaching about character in leaders because Pitt claimed to have a “calling” from God to lead this ministry.”
    – Put these two together and you get a picture of one of the major weaknesses in Evangelical, and not only Southern, church culture. I’m afraid this is particularly true of churches organized along congregational lines. It’s not that congregationalism doesn’t have it’s strengths as well, it does, but in my experience it sets the bar for ministry far too low and provides too little accountability. Virtually any claim of a “calling” is accepted without question. But then maybe it wasn’t only Baptists, etc. who were so unquestionably accepting of whatever Pitt was doing, and maybe the problem is as much with parachurch ministries as much as any church polity.

    • Scott Tiede

      I disagree with your take on congregationalism. I am in a congregationalist church and have a high view of the external call to ministry (if one feels led to be in ministry, he must also be recognized by the congregation as having those gifts). I have told young men that they are not ready yet based on how their lives stack up with 1 Tim 3. I always offer discipleship. Some take that route and get ready for ministry, others do not. The external call to ministry is very important to us.

  • Nathan Dewberry

    I think the lack of godly older men investing in younger men within the church has also led to situations like this one. Older, wiser men are needed in the lives of younger men, especially young men in ministry. Our culture’s obsession with young and cool often infiltrates the church.

    • Geno

      The younger have to ALLOW the older to mentor them. Much of what is no longer considered ” emerging”, ” relevant”, or trendy is still allowed in many churches. This celebration of immaturity and cultral relativity produces these kinds of events.

      • Sing

        In this case, He refused his “elders”.

        As many are faithful…many young pastors today also think they have all the knows, etc.

    • Silas

      The only problem with that is the older generation refuses to meet the younger generation half-way. The 50s were not “golden age” of Christianity as many old timers continue to emphasize. Younger people are down with gaining wisdom from the young but there needs to be a greater push from the older generation to make disciples of the young. They will NOT come to you, you must GO get them.

      • http://www.intelligenceisnotasin.net Chancellor Roberts

        It isn’t the older generation’s responsibility to meet anyone “half way.” It’s the Christian’s responsibility to meet other Christians where Jesus is.

        • Victor


      • DJ Benjamin

        I got born again when I was 24 years and then I thought all people older and younger need to listen to me. Maybe I spent a lot of time thinking about Christian concepts but I lacked discipleship. I learnt it when I made major mistakes in my life.
        A Christ centered atmosphere created by the Spirit in the church to make elders walking with the Lord to be sensitive to the needs of the youth. The youth have to work on being teachable.
        Lets look at things in perspective, we all worship in front of all knowing and almighty God, Lord of the Universe and our Saviour. We need Him. Not the other way around.

  • Ruth

    This is what aches my heart. I live in Quebec where a handful of young people attending is cause for celebration. Where has accountability gone? Where are the Bible based messages? Why are we not out there doing one-on-one evangelism? Jesus did not have a side circus when he preached. Jesus did not have a gimmick! Thank you for the food for thought.

    • Scott Tiede

      I really think the key here is doing what Jesus did… making disciples. If every believer make one disciple every year or two, and that person went on to make a disciple every year or two, we would have the entire world discipled in just a generation or two. God’s plan works every time its tried!

  • http://petervandever.com Peter Vandever

    You never say what is wrong with his theology? I dont know much about him but I am wondering? Because he is not Baptist?

    • Mark Todhunter

      I’ll give you a taste of it Peter

      Here is a quote from a “sermon” of his

      “It was getting about halftime and God’s plan was not working. Mosses didn’t work, Joshua didn’t work and David didn’t work. So he sent in a new quarterback, Jesus. Now it was a sure win.” That is just one of the few.

      • cathy

        That quote just left me speechless… did that not raise a red flag with any other (even somewhat knowledgeable) person in that room when it was said.

      • http://dpradke.wordpress.com Daniel Radke

        Wow, that really is poor theology. I can’t believe that churches who send teens to him wouldn’t look into what he is teaching!

        • http://petervandever.com Peter Vandever

          I would need to hear the context of it. I could see where he was going with that message, actually.

          • Jon Hall

            Can you think of a possible context that would be a good statement?

          • Mark Todhunter

            Peter context would not help it.

          • http://nickcarnes.com Nick

            Peter, the bad theology is that “God’s plan was not working”, for starters. Moses, Joshua & David were all a part of God’s plan…all an imperfect shadow of Jesus…with the purpose to point people to their need of Jesus. The premise teaches students that God makes mistakes, his plan doesn’t always work out, etc. It also teaches that Jesus was a back-up plan, rather than THE plan.

            • Sing

              Peter, his exegesis of scripture is wrong and he expound the word of God that he himself doesn’t understand. Moses, Joshua, David, etc our individual in God’s ultimate purpose. And God’s ultimate purpose is the Jesus Christ. God did not “try” to “create”a savior in Moses, in Joshua, in David, etc. This illustration portraits them (Moses, Joshua, David, etc) as failed savior and BAAAAAM, here come Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, he is one of the trinity, there is non before and non after.

            • NotScofield

              Sounds like Classical Dispensationalism, which -was- heresy for every time except our own.

            • Jon Hall

              @NotScofield – That is a very serious accusation. Heresy implies false teaching to the extent of apostasy… damnable error. Plus, dispensationalism does not even remotely teach that God’s plan was thwarted until Jesus came.

          • http://www.larryfarlow.com Larry Farlow

            There is no context that would make that statement acceptable.

    • Mel

      I wondered the same thing but I think you are being unfair.
      His fruit is not the fact that he can get large followings. Lady Gaga has more.
      His fruit would be visible in his personal life and the arrests for misrepresenting himself.

      While reading it I immediately wondered about mental illness. Mania can look like ADHD. Drug abuse can be an attempt to self medicate something that feels horribly wrong. Thinking that he has a calling from God and being unwilling to put himself under authority of anyone would also be an indication of mental illness.

      What is more horrifying is the lack of discernment on everyone’s part that is willing to follow him. It says something about our world when young people are so hungry for God’s word that they will take any little bit they can get from an unstable person.

      • Jon Hall

        “It says something about our world when young people are so hungry for God’s word that they will take any little bit they can get from an unstable person.”

        That’s the problem. People are not “hungry” for God’s word teenager or adult. We are sinners at heart and only through the work of the Holy Spirit are our eyes opened to His truth. I see the massive following to the tickling of ears.

    • http://scottslayton.net Scott Slayton

      Thanks for your question. The concerns about The Basement’s theology have little to do with denominational affiliation. (They emphasize that they do not have one.) Their website does not reveal exactly what they do believe. There have been troubling statements like the one quoted in a previous comment and concerns about the way that the Gospel has been presented.

      • http://petervandever.com Peter Vandever

        I am asking what theological position is dangerous? Are they Open Theist? Deny the trinity? Deny the Holy Spirit moves today? Don’t believe in healing? etc. Throw me a bone.

        • Peter Vandever

          I have watch some stuff on Youtube. Nothing that seemed way off. Thats why I ask the author what seems off.

          As far as a young believer, it seems the guy has been saved about 8-9 years. Thats not “young”

          • Rey D.

            Peter, look for the fruits (Mathew 7:15-20), that passage of Scripture is really tuff… Age or chronological knowing the Christian system of believe is not a warranty of maturity. You were asking in what aspect he was off and you mention a couple of doctrinal statements like the Trinity etc. If don’t preach the gospel, you are not preaching you are just having a speech, if you are a little off you missed the target at all.

          • Todd Stone

            I find Peter’s desire to give a brother in Christ the Benefit of the doubt to be refreshing. we are too quick to cast judgement on people from afar. it is best for us to be as charitable as possible.

            but the main point of the article stands. Matt Pitt was arrested over a year ago for impersonating an officer, yet because his organization is not under the authroity of the Local church, no recourse was taken. not even a real apology from Pitt was given. parents of students and youth pastors continued to send their students to him in droves.

            as a Pastor in Brimingham, Scott has seen firsthand the impact of Pitts Ministry. as a Graduate of a highschool in birmingham and of the University of alabama, where another parachurch organization known as “Unashamed” that has strong ties with The Basement began, I too have seen students and young people my age disregard their responsiblity to a local church and call the Basement their “spiritual family”. it is a dangerous organization that is led by a man whose character has shown to be questionable at best, who uses the word of God to teach a self esteem Gospel, and who does not point these kids back to the local church.

            so while I appreciate the charitable spirit, the point of the article remains:

            “Southern churches rightly desire to reach teenagers, as we should want to see every person in our region come to Christ. But this aim will not be accomplished with a more exciting atmosphere, louder music, and a central charismatic figure who can rouse teens. Churches would better reach the next generation if they emphasized compelling biblical preaching and intergenerational discipleship, and if they empowered parents to teach the gospel to their own children.

            Our teenagers do not need someone who can put on a great show so much as they need people to love them, teach them, and model the Christian life for them. Such faithfulness would do more to grab the hearts of our teenagers than a large, loud event ever could”

      • Mark Todhunter

        I have called them out on their misuse of Scripture in their statement of faith on their site. They have since replaced it with a canned SOF.
        Their website does not scream God or Jesus. It looks like a shrine to Matt Pitt. Most testimonies, LAST time I checked were all about Pitt and the Basement.

  • http://thatishouldgain.wordpress.com Matt G

    Unrelated note:
    This article reminded me of Ignatius Youth Pastor on YouTube:

    More serious note:
    I think, in addition to Pitt himself, the problem lies with churches who are more and more willing to look past biblical qualifications and necessities in order to get the results that they want. The authority of God’s Word has to be a mark of Gospel-centered churches in all of life. Otherwise, if the Word is not authoritative in the church, whose will is being abided by: God’s or a person’s? Stories like this too often prompt a response by churches and Christians which simply leads to finger pointing at youth pastors and churches, but what if instead of a negative response churches saw this and saw the necessity of being more thoroughly biblical and Gospel-centered? In addition to that, what if grace characterized how Christians view Pitt in that he is reached out to and cared for as someone struggling with sin as opposed to distanced and ostracized? Of course he is being punished for his actions, but I think it would be helpful to love this person even while they are in prison and brought some pretty bad attention to the church. The story now is his arrest and flaws and what led to this, but I think the big story could be his reconciliation and transformation coupled with forgiveness on the part of his church.

  • Mark Todhunter

    You need to speak up more here in the B’ham area

  • David

    Why did this happen? Wrong conversion paradigm.

    • http://www.beholdyourgod.org Matthew

      Agreed, but what lies behind the wrong view of Christian conversion? An idolatrously-low, unbiblical view of God. That is the root. The trunk that breaks ground from this root is an unbiblical and false idea of a Christian, the branches are churches populated and led by unregenerate men and women, and the poisoned fruit is literally all around us. No way to effectively deal with the fruit, branches, or trunk without going all the way down to the root.

  • Kraig

    I would say, more often than not, it is always a bad idea for someone to lead a ministry that has a history of drug abuse, which can cause permanent damage to thinking and decision-making.

    I don’t know the number of clean years that would make me comfortable with a former drug addict leading a ministry, but it’s definitely a 2-digit number.

    The main problem in this situation, in my opinion, is not this guy starting a ministry in his basement, but parents blindly sending their children to him.

    • Miranda

      I have seen countless recovered drug addicts do amazing ministry. I have been challenged to see them hunger for God’s word and by watching them stay constantly accountable to different authorities in their life. Please, please don’t put all past drug users under the umbrella of Pitt! God can redeem any situation and there are countless accounts in the Bible of God choosing the weak and the nobodies to bring about his will and his glory.

    • Wesley Howell

      Kraig, I believe that your just begging the question. Is having a history of drug abuse(drunkenness) a biblical disqualifier for church leadership or just your rule of thumb opinion? If God’s Word shows that to be true, how so? Also how does not having a history of drug abuse(drunkenness) qualify someone as a leader? Yes, there have been people with histories of drug abuse that have fallen just like Matt Pitt but in complete agreement with what Scott says in this article I’d have to say that the issue here is that he went into ministry prematurely (which no christian should do) and refused discipleship and accountability from other Christians. Matt’s lifestyle before he got saved may or may not have been a related issue but it’s definitely not the root of the cause.

  • http://www.dennaepierre.com Dennae Pierre

    I think our culture (reformed world included) celebrates anyone who draws large crowds. I think we are all guilty of this celebrity pastor worship and the bigger someone gets, the more credibility we give them- even when methods may be concerning.

    • Jon Hall

      It’s human nature to be pragmatic. The Bible warns us that few will follow him and when I see these large churches that grow super fast through one a two leaders, especially young leaders, my warning bells go off.

  • Nell

    Before getting into a theological discussion, has anyone questioned the mental health of this young man? He sounds like he might need help as opposed to a lecture on doctrine. Some of his answers appear divorced from reality.

  • Darby

    After watching a few videos of the Basement, it strikes me as very much like old fashioned southern revivalism dressed up as a college-aged punk.

    This is a great example of why the church, made up of believers from kids to seniors is so important. A ministry that excludes those who have the wisdom to guide young people is in trouble!

  • http://www.churchleadership.org Richard Krejcir

    His call was good, his focus as off….. This is what happens when we focus on ourselves, seek to follow trends and negate our discipleship and spiritual formation…. Only a fool would be surprised this happened…. A warning to us all, drop to your knees and get into the Word, then do radical ministy, especially if you are in ministry! If you refuse, then get out of ministry! It is that simple….. Psalm 15


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  • Kevin

    There is a WHOLE lot of self promotion on his site and took me nearly 3min to find the name of Jesus (and not much quicker to find a reference to God at all) – this should’ve probably been the first (of what I assume to be many) warning sign(s).

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  • http://Thisyouthpastor.blogspot.com J. Gardner

    I love the Gospel Coalition. I love what it stands for and what it says about our need for a Savior and the primacy it places on Christ. But again, as a youth pastor, can we please find some encouragement on here? Every single article about youth ministry is critical of the stereotypical youth ministry flash, sizzle, and drama, which in itself is a good argument and worthy of attention. But when I go as a youth pastor to TGC online hoping for a bit of training and encouragement about youth ministry, it seems that there is some kind of wall built against it. If you look at the articles in the past 5 or 6 months, seemingly every one that is about youth ministry is built on hammering the bad trends instead of equipping or encouraging those who are trying to be gospel centered in the midst of all of it. There is more than enough bad press for youth ministry out there, and I think a little encouragement could go a long way. If it is a goal that older pastors should be encouraging younger pastors, maybe beginning with some encouragement about their job on the whole, rather than constant articles about every exceptionally bad example, would be a step in the right direction.

  • susan

    Addiction can come in many forms. While Mr. Pitt may have indeed thrown off the shackles of other addictions he managed to fill the need with the addiction of power. We have seen the consequences of this type of addiction repeat many times in history. Arming our next generation with their own power to discern the truth in the messages preached falls at our feet and the front door of our churches. When I taught college and career classes in Sunday school I tried to help them understand in many ways the gospel of salvation and the Christian life has been made to seem difficult and wrought with judgement and condemnation for so many things outside our doors. Not our call or our desire to be the object of such actions. We do, however, need to know what we believe and be able to hold our own when necessary. We need to remember to just keep it simple. Jesus did and His example for simplicity is ours to live.

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  • http://www.justmyfaithtalking.wordpress.com Tahlitha

    What I can gather from this article is not so much that he’s a young pastor, because older pastors falter as well, but when we as Christians, pastor or congregation, become puffed up in our abilities and lessen our need for Jesus and his truths in our callings that we can become less and less concerned with living them out in His name, but in our own.

    I pray God would clear the confusion in his heart and then his mind, to make use of them both. And that he send and surround godly men and women around him to help.

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  • Steve

    I’m really disturbed by how quickly people seem to be giving up on this guy. It’s too simplistic to reduce this problem to improper accountability and insufficient use of scripture in ministry.

    I don’t think accountability would have helped at all considering his mistakes here are centered around deception and seem to be somewhat addictive in nature (repeated impersonation, in the face of unreasonable risk).

    Counseling and life-on-life mentoring would go a lot further in addressing the root of why he feels compelled to act out like that. Probably the leading cause of this acting out is that he is trying to be a good Christian but hasn’t dealt with the pain that he is covering up with this behavior. This is especially common for people who get saved out of destructive lifestyles.

    Like it or not, Christians sin after they get saved. It happens a lot, like… all the time and every Christian. So rather than ostracize this guy because he is stuck in destructive and sinful behavior, let’s direct the discussion to how he and others like him can get healing.

    The really disturbing thing for me is that so many of the posters in this ‘gospel coalition’ forum aren’t comfortable applying the principles of the grace of the gospel to this situation. This kind of stuff is quite common, and much more destructive(ex: internet pornography), among many of the attendees of our respective churches. We just don’t like to deal with it because people don’t catch you and put your picture in the paper surrounded by police, so it doesn’t strike us as shameful and self-destructive.

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  • Bliss Kelley

    If not for the grace of God, there go I. Everyday you must choose to serve Christ and make Him number 1 that you may not be overcome by temptation. This is why we pray for our leaders, that they will be strong and courageous to withstand the fight in faith and not be torn down by the oppression they face in a Godless society. Satan glories in taking down the mighty, but the family of Christ needs to help them find restoration in Christ.

    You don’t know what this man has faced. Do not take vanity by comparing your walk and where you are at right now vs. where he stands. All have fallen short of the glory of God. We all like sheep have gone astray, each turning to his own way. Don’t you know that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion looking for whom he may devour. Humble yourself and pray that the mighty may be mighty once again by the POWER of God. Ye of little faith church, have you forgotten the POWER of the GOD we serve? Salvation is not a once in a life time thing, it’s a daily thing – the bread of life.

  • Eddie
  • Logan

    I agree with this article’s general points about the dangers of the success culture in the church.

    I just watched that interview though, and I am not sure Matt Pitt’s situation is the best illustration. He is obviously not thinking clearly. I have no insight into his life, but his behavior is consistent with mania or drug use. If it is bipolar or some other psychiatric issue I hope we will give him the benefit of the doubt here and allow him to get some treatment before writing him off entirely.

  • http://areturntofaith.com/ Joshua Breland

    This is sad in every way. He was enabled and set up to fail. Though, it is ultimately his responsibility. Prayers needed for Pitt.

  • Jack

    We can’t force somebody from holding meetings in his or her own rec-room. Not even Birmingham pastors all working together could have forced it to stop. What I do see are parents who seem ignorant of Scriptural standards for leadership, or are unaware of Biblical doctrine on ministry governance, or were reluctant to say no to something that everybody else their kids know are into, or not being able to tell the difference between excitement and the Holy Spirit. But a lot of young-ish U.S. Christians seem to believe that grace is the same thing as leniency, and that numbers mean that God is happy — because that’s what /they/ have been taught.

  • Susan

    Very interesting & insightful article. I agree that teens need modeling discipleship and not just a show- but I think the Church needs outreach as well. Very few teens I work with have committed Christian parents, so we can’t just depend on parents disciplining kids!

  • DVo

    From his grandiose behavior, I suspect a mental illness–he has mentioned having ADD, but I would suspect bipolar disorder. I don’t mean that as a condescension, but as an objective observation. Christians can have mental illnesses. I wouldn’t say that necessarily disqualifies one for ministry–we are all jars of clay. However, for the reasons mentioned in the article, I do believe he is not qualified as a pastor. He needs maturity, accountability and self-control. It’s all very sad, both for him and those affected by his ministry. As was also mentioned, we really need to use discernment in regards to our support of youth (or any) ministries.

  • http://www.examiner.com/christian-perspectives-in- Steve

    This is the first I’ve heard of this young man, but this articles explanation of his conversion is ambiguous at best. “At the end of his rope, he cried out to God while lying on the floor of his parents’ basement. Pitt says he is not exactly sure what happened in that moment, but he wanted his friends to experience the same thing” There is no mention of Christ. No mention of coming to a knowledge of the truth. There is only mention of something experiential occurring. That seems problematic.

    I would have to read more about it.

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