Most photographers talk about taking photos or shooting photos. Not Cathy Newcomb. She receives photos.
For her, the experience of contemplative photography is a way to experience God through creation, new perspectives and receiving photographs as a spiritual discipline.
A professional portrait photographer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and an active member of First Presbyterian Church, Newcomb also guides a new worshipping community called Through the Lens, which uses contemplative photography practices as a means of worshipping and of building community.
Now recognized as one of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Through the Lens has a goal of using participants’ photographic talents as a means of connecting with God.
Most people think that worship has to take place inside a typical church building. Through the Lens is stretching the idea of “church.” Newcomb says that contemplative worship involves taking time for renewal, slowing down, getting quiet, being reflective — it’s an old practice that is becoming new again. “We’re dusting off the idea of contemplative,” she said, “but it’s not your grandma’s idea of contemplative. This is new.”
Inspired by authors such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and Ann Voskamp, Newcomb is trying to draw the group deeper into Christianity through contemplation. Participants are trying to grow deeper in faith through both individual practice and sharing in community. “You can certainly do this in the comfort of your own home,” Newcomb said. “You can read your Bible, read devotionals, spend time in prayer in a small room in your house with the candles lit. But there is something more inclusive and deeper when you do it in community. When we are in community sometimes the light is sparked” by a comment or thought someone else expresses.
These different perspectives and “aha” moments are opportunities, she said, for God to speak.
A few years ago, Newcomb was involved with a spiritual group that helped her find new ways to connect with God — the Soul Sisters. These women met together to practice spiritual disciplines. They started with “The Emerging Journey,” a yearlong spiritual study program designed to foster accountability, supportive relationships, reflection and prayer. Having grown close, the group continued into “The Apprentice Series,” a three-book group study which offered “soul training exercises” as homework, such as prayer practice and fasting from media use.
At the end of the series, each participant was challenged to create her own spiritual plan to connect with God. Newcomb found that she appreciated the practice of quiet time, but also sensed a deep desire to spend more time with her camera and connect her photography to God. Could photography be a spiritual practice?
Around this time, her pastor recommended she read the book “Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice,” focusing on just what Newcomb hungered for: a faith-centered practice of photography. She immediately began building her personal soul-training plan, using “Eyes of the Heart” as a guide. As she did, she started sharing her photos and thoughts with others.
Her Soul Sisters had heard about the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative the PC(USA) was launching. As they listened to Newcomb share her passions and her calling, the women connected the two: They believed Newcomb was describing a call to lead a new worshipping community and felt that others would walk with her and find value in the practice. The Through the Lens community was created soon after as a place for those interested in photography to gather together and use their cameras as a way to commune with God and others.
The Through the Lens community meets twice a month on Sunday afternoons for two hours. As a community of photographers, choosing a meeting location with rich optics was key. Newcomb found just such a place in downtown Sioux Falls at the Queen City Bakery. In addition to the access to food and coffee (critical for Presbyterian fellowship!), the bakery is in an area of town with magnificent architecture and is near to a park and scenic river.
However, the participants also knew that a single location might become too static and not stretch their photography muscles as deeply as desired. So, their second monthly meeting changes location, often selecting a place to complements the theme for the month. A local ski resort with walking trails set the scene for “Black & White”; McKennan Park, bursting with blooming flower gardens, was the perfect setting for a theme of “Color”; and the month focusing on “God” found them at Wild Prairie Winery, where they walked the vineyards and ended with communion.
“We worship through our camera lenses,” Newcomb says.
Each gathering opens with a lesson and meditation for the day — often brief and interactive. Newcomb leads the teaching and says her aim is to facilitate discussion more than to preach. Many participants are familiar with Scripture, but some are not. “I try to find a balance to support everyone, no matter where they are on the faith journey,” Newcomb said. “As a community, faith is a journey that we are all walking together.”
Newcomb maps out the themes for each gathering a year at a time, rooting each one in Scripture. One recent theme, “Black & White,” drew from paradoxes in Scripture such as “the last will be made first” from the Sermon on the Mount. Another theme, “Less Is More,” considered the tension between the presence of the Lord and the experience of tumultuous times in the 6th chapter of Judges. As the group considered these biblical passages, Newcomb asked: Have you found a time in your life when you have thought this way? What does the Bible say about that? Those further along in their faith journey tend guide the conversation by sharing what they have learned.
After a prayer, the group takes time for contemplative worship in the form of a prayer photo walk. For 20 to 40 minutes, each worshipper goes off individually to reflect on the lesson. When the theme was “Less Is More,” photographers were encouraged to only take five pictures. “In this digital world, we’re used to taking lots of photographs with intention to weed through photos later,” Newcomb said. Instead, participants were challenged to slow down and take fewer shots.
When everyone had returned from the prayer walk, there was a chance to share the images that were received. Participants were asked to pick one photo and share it while telling what about it made it personally meaningful. “This is where the magic happens. This is where you hear God speaking,” Newcomb said, adding that this time is often more touching and spiritual than any lesson might be — with people describing their sense of encountering God in the process.
Some weeks the group uses music in worship — playing via iTunes or YouTube a song that correlates with the monthly theme while images are shared. From time to time, one member synchronizes his photos on slides with a recording of organ music he has played.
Each gathering ends with a time of prayer for the group and for each member’s concerns.
Participants are encouraged to follow a daily practice of visio divina, which is similar to lectio divina. Whereas lectio divina uses words, visio divina uses images. Using photographs or artwork, individuals are invited to look at the image and go deeper: Where is God evident? What draws in the eyes? Then there is time for prayer over the image and what has been received.
Leadership and membership
Newcomb gathered members from her home Presbyterian congregation and from the community to be a “focus team” for the new worshipping community. This organizational body meets quarterly to discuss the schedule, budgeting, outreach and mission.
The 1001 New Worshiping Communities seed grant given to Through the Lens helps cover Newcomb’s salary (she is the community’s only paid leader) and supports the group’s mission work. Pastors from First Presbyterian Church, the supporting congregation, have also shared in worship and provided sacraments.
“Membership” is thought of as those who repeatedly attend Through the Lens gatherings. Repeat attendance indicates that the community meets a need of that member — spirituality, community or the union of art and faith in a contemplative devotional form.
Visitors tend to return. In fact, few rarely attend only once.
Many participants also are members of another congregation. Some are Presbyterian, some Catholic, some from other denominations. A few don’t participate in other churches; for them, Through the Lens is their only faith community.
The community grows largely by personal invitation. Participants include doctors, lawyers, caregivers, construction workers and nonprofit employees. Some have professional photography experience; others simply enjoy taking photographs. In Through the Lens, diverse backgrounds find common ground.
From the beginning, Through the Lens leaders knew they wanted to be involved in mission. But how could they tie photography into mission work?
Two focus team members had been leaders of recent mission trips to Honduras with First Presbyterian Church. They suggested a mission partnership between the church, Through the Lens and the Honduran community. During trips to Honduras, families they met were photographed and then mailed a print of the portrait. These portraits are hung in the families’ homes with reverence and pride, often being the only family portrait they possess.
Through the Lens has also been invited to work with a local care organization in Sioux Falls, partnering to offer family portraits. “Family portraits are important,” Newcomb said. “Maybe not as important as food and clothing. But once those needs are met, we work to provide for spiritual needs.” Family photos are often put off because other needs are more immediate — considered nonessential when funds are tight. But for the spirit, being able to have a school portrait and a family portrait are important.
Many high school seniors will have senior portraits made by professional photographers (in addition to the school headshot). Through the Lens wants to offer that service to students who might be denied that opportunity because they couldn’t afford it.
Through the Lens is also providing framed prints to be used as décor on the walls of Bishop Dudley House, a local homeless shelter.
Looking into the future
As the community continues to grow, Through the Lens hopes to share the practice of visio divina with others. Last summer, Newcomb taught a class in visio divina and contemplative photography at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School in Storm Lake, Iowa.
Closer to home, Through the Lens participates in an annual local arts festival that offers the group greater visibility in the community and the opportunity to invite others to their gatherings.
Newomb has found that people gravitate to the practice of visio divina, even if they are not photographers themselves. In response to this interest, Through the Lens is creating a series of photo devotionals. For their first book, they partnered with a Presbyterian pastor to create an Advent devotional. (A free PDF of the book is available on the Through the Lens website.) Recently, they’ve created a 52-week photo devotional, pairing images with Scripture and mediations.
Through the Lens doesn’t look like a “typical” Presbyterian church. There’s no church building, no hymnals, no formal sermon. But to those who participate, it is church. It is a place where community is built, fellowship shared, God experienced, and Scripture encountered.
Newcomb resonates with a description of church she once heard: “The mark of an effective church is not how many people come, but how many people live differently as a result of having been there.”
All photos provided by Through the Lens. A version of this piece originally appeared in Call to Worship. It is reprinted here with permission.