Cathy Newcomb was on a spiritual journey when she decided to try connecting with God through an activity that she had only done professionally, not personally — photography.

That initial step has led to Through the Lens, a new worshiping community in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Through the Lens was recently awarded a $7,500 grant from the Presbyterian Mission Agency as part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative.

Last fall, Newcomb, a professional photographer and teacher at a Christian preschool, began taking contemplative photo walks after her pastor suggested the book Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice. Instead of lectio divina— a meditative way of reading Scripture — the book advocated visio divina, a way of meditating on images.

Newcomb began photographing whatever sparked her attention during her walks and then reflecting on what God had to say to her about the photos she took.

As others learned about her contemplative photo walks, they encouraged her to form a group with others drawn to visio divina.

“‘What you are doing is an emerging church,’” they told her.

After some resistance to God’s nudging, Newcomb organized Through the Lens, a group of about 10 people that meets twice a month for a lesson, photo walk and discussion.

Through the Lens alternates between meeting in a local bakery and in various locations around Sioux Falls — museums, parks and even a vineyard — so that members have new settings to photograph.

“We were very intentional about picking locations to meet and times to meet to make it available to all kinds of people,” Newcomb said, adding that some of the participants are already active in a church and that others are unchurched for various reasons. “God isn’t found in just the four walls of the church — or in just the four walls of the bakery.”

Each meeting centers around a biblical and photographical theme, such as light and shadow, doors and windows or reflection. After hearing a message from Newcomb, participants spend 20-30 minutes on their own, photographing objects or scenes that speak to them. When they’re done, the group discusses and reflects on the photos.

“It’s not the message that connects with people,” Newcomb said. “When they come back (with their photos), that’s where the magic happens. That’s where God is in full force.”

Walking around with a camera, whether it’s a cell phone or a DSLR with professional-grade lenses, opens conversations with others, Newcomb said. She has met people who are interested in her camera and then share their own spiritual journeys. And at one meeting in a park, Through the Lens played music for its lesson on color. The music drew in a woman who asked the group to pray for her son.

“It is God’s impeccable timing,” Newcomb said.

The logo of Through the Lens

The logo of Through the Lens —Courtesy of Through the Lens

Although based in Sioux Falls, Through the Lens has connected with people all over the country through social media, especially its Facebook page, where participants share their photos and encourage others to join in.

Since Through the Lens began meeting in January, Newcomb — who has been in various church leadership positions but has no formal training — has learned to trust more in God’s call.

“I have learned to listen. I have learned to trust God more in His plan,” she said. “Don’t discount your skills and your talents that God has given you.”

While photography is a big part of Through the Lens, only one or two members are professional photographers, Newcomb said.

“The point isn’t to take the most picturesque picture. It’s to look through the lens for God,” she said. “Your photo skills might not improve, but your faith life will.”