For the first time ever, congregations will celebrate Easter at home, and likely watching the service streamed online.

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PANAMA CITY — The sanctuary is empty. But that's only because the gospel is being spread throughout the city — and world.


For the first time ever, congregations will celebrate Easter at home and likely watching the service streamed online. Locally, members of the clergy are welcoming their members, as well as anyone anywhere seeking new hope, to tune-in to their online services.


"It's just interesting how this has given us new opportunities to reach out to people," said Father Michael Nixon, priest at St. Dominic Catholic Church.


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Nixon said, of the 1,500 families at the church, usually 40 or 50 families attend Mass daily.


"We've been doing a lot of online stuff for the past couple of years, but this really has forced us to go into overdrive in that to reach more people," he said. And spreading the story of Christ "is at the very heart of our faith."


On Good Friday, Nixon and a small group of parishioners held the customary Veneration of the Cross service at the church, which has moved into a tent as its building is still being repaired from damages caused by Hurricane Michael a year and a half ago.


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The sanctuary was dark, yet somber; and empty onsite, though streamed video revealed more than a thousand views. Nixon said he expects St. Dominic's virtual views to be transformed into new memberships.


"It allows people who haven't been coming to see the message and recognize that the gospel has something to do with their lives," Nixon said. "Our faith, particularly as Catholics, is incarnational — in the flesh, as God came in the flesh. So as good as digital communication is, it points towards what we really want, which is to actually be in contact with one another, to actually be in contact with God."


"I think it's going to increase the hunger for that, increase the hunger for the faith," he concluded.


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St. Dominic's Catholic Church Easter service can be viewed at 10 a.m. online at SaintDominicPC.com. The church will also have a food distribution event 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 18 at the church, 3308 E. 15th Street.


Grace Presbyterian Church has developed several multimedia tools to assist with keeping its membership spiritually steady during this time of social distancing.


The Rev. Eric Spoon joined the church of about 110 families in January from Tennessee. The church has prepared a home worship kit.


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"It's not just a video to watch. It walks you down how to do worship with a friend, or family, or over the phone if you needed to," Spoon said. "It's downloadable. It's also interactive."


On Easter Sunday, the church will stream a pre-recorded video of a new Easter service. And despite the unique circumstance resulting from the pandemic, Spoon's message, he said, will remain the same.


"The whole story of the empty tomb, where only a few people were there to witness the empty tomb," he said. "If we see it, we experience it, then we need to go tell the masses about it. (That is), even though you may be gathered by one or two ... the message is to go forth and share what has been found."


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Hence, after travel restrictions end, "there's a whole lot to do," Spoon said, referencing sharing the gospel with the hopeless and those in despair.


It's about "keeping hope alive. It's really easy to get down in despair as we're trying to keep our distance from one another."


"There are people feeling isolated or forgotten," he added, pointing directly to elderly people who are experiencing the strictest restrictions — likely spending their time alone, without contact with their family members — because of weakened immune systems.


"But I'm here to say there's light at the end of the tunnel," Spoon concluded.


Grace Presbyterian Church will stream its Easter service at 10:30 a.m. online at GraceChurchPC.com. The church will restart its weekly food distribution event after the travel restriction is lifted.


For Pastor Steven Kyle at Hiland Park Baptist Church, the recent mandates have caused only a slight change in the way he communicates with his members and reaches out to the hearts of those seeking strength in faith.


"We've had our social media platform that we've been using. So, electronically, we were fortunate that we weren't scrambling. We only had to make minor changes," Kyle said.


He said he hopes that viewers will be more receptive of the message of the gospel now that different avenues to hear the message have been opened.


"In light of the situation that we're in, maybe folks are a little more open to hearing the message of hope," he said, adding, even online the Lord's "presence will be there."


The church has about 3,000 families. Kyle said online services receive upwards of 10,000 viewers "engaging our services."


As a conversational preacher, Kyle said it has been a challenge to embody the humor and intimacy he uses in his regular, in-person services while speaking to an empty sanctuary that sits 2,000 individuals.


"That would be the thing I miss the most — being able to look our congregants right in the eyes, and have conversations with them, drink coffee with them," he said. "It all comes down to faith," he said moments earlier.


"I try to remind myself and I remind them of is Christ is bigger than the difficulty that we're facing," he said. "Thank God that we have the platforms that we do have to at least communicate."


Recalling the tough times after Hurricane Michael, followed by a wave of togetherness and support from people outside of the area, Kyle said, "Just as God has been faithful in the past, he will continue to be faithful."


Hiland Park Baptist Church will air its Easter service at 1 p.m. Sunday on WMBB. The service will also be streamed live at 9 a.m. online at HilandPark.org.


Find a list of local Easter services and regular faith events at NewsHerald.com.