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The conversation about Advent imagery of dark and light — and how readily it can be associated with skin color — is one many Christians are having years into a racial reckoning for both the church and the country, sparked by the murders of George Floyd and other Black people in 2020.

Across the country, United Methodist churches are voting to leave the denomination by following an exit plan approved by its leaders more than three years ago. But in Florida and North Carolina, some churches have decided to sue United Methodist regional bodies. The denomination is undergoing a wholesale splinter after decades of rancorous debate over the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members.

Does it take a big pageant to put the melody of the greatest story in our hearts? We won’t explore this question with three spirits, but we will try three acts. In this issue of A Public Witness, we’ll take you on a visit to big megachurch shows of Christmases past. Then we ponder in the present what it means to give our best to Jesus before offering a vision of what future celebrations could look like.

Professional degrees are gaining traction at theological schools across the U.S. and Canada, while the traditional ministerial degree, the master of divinity, is faltering, according to new data released late last month. Master of divinity programs constitute 35% of enrollment at theological schools overall – that’s a significant decline from the 43% of total enrollment for master of divinity degrees a decade ago.

 “I would permanently ‘defrock’ Johnny Hunt if I had the authority to do so,” Bart Barber, sitting president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement released Tuesday. Hunt, who served as president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination from 2008 to 2010, stepped aside from public ministry in May after allegations that he had sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife were made public.

Juliet Vedral makes the case that the life and faithfulness of Mary Magdalene are a witness in this Advent season of light breaking through darkness and hope appearing where it’s least expected. Vedral spoke to Elizabeth Tabish, an actress from the television show The Chosen who plays Mary as a woman recovering from sexual assault and mental illness.

Disgraced former Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt plans a return to ministry after completing a restoration process overseen by four pastors, according to a video released last week. Hunt, a longtime megachurch pastor in Georgia, was named earlier this year in the Guidepost Solutions report on sexual abuse in the SBC, which alleged that Hunt had sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife.

With Christmas approaching, Christine Trotter explores part of the story that is usually omitted: Mary travels from Nazareth to Judea to visit her relative Elisabeth, an older woman who speaks prophetically to Mary and informs her that she is pregnant with the Lord. Trotter outlines what else we know about Elisabeth, why her character is frequently left out of the Christmas story, and why she should be included as a prophetic voice.

For the second time in as many years, a university affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention has seen its accreditation placed on a two-year probation amid controversy about mismanagement and poor trustee governance.

The ongoing decline of organized religion in America has led to an existential crisis for tens of thousands of congregations. Over the past two decades, the median size of a congregation has dropped from 137 people to 65 people. Rather than owning a building that was empty most of the week, Embrace Church is part owner of a thriving third space — filled every day with the sounds of conversation and friendship.