I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. A lot of them. There basically isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t have one of the two (or often both) playing at some point. Not only do I simply enjoy the experience of audiobooks, as an individual with ADHD I find this to often be the way to engage with the information I am trying to study or retain the best.
The bible is no exception to this. In undergrad, I was given a copy of the New Testament read by Johnny Cash on cassette as a gift. As a theology student, I purchased multiple audiobook versions of the bible to help aid in my studies. I have, however, always found audio bibles to fall far short of effective. They certainly work fine for listening to the whole bible (or a whole book) like a full audiobook but are utterly useless if you want to do any study or find a specific passage or story.
So when a Kickstarter project showed up earlier this year for a new app called Dwell that promised to be a “ new audio bible app that keeps Scripture in your ears and on your heart” I jumped at becoming a backer. And so did a lot of other people, 2,262 in total. The Kickstarter project raised nearly $129,000 during it’s run in January.
My excitement was reignited when I received an update at the end of June that the app was available on the iOS app store.
After using it for the last couple of weeks, here are some of my initial thoughts.
- As of this writing, the Dwell app includes the English Standard Version (ESV) only. The developers have stated, however, that they hope to add additional translations in the future.
- The app also does not currently have the whole bible available. The app launched with the entire New Testament as well as seven of the Old Testament books available. The creators do state that they:
[…] will be adding the rest of the books as we finish them, but you can expect to see at least a few new completed books for all 4 voices each month in the app until it is all complete.
- Finally, the price. The app itself is free to download. The free version can be used to listen to one of the voices and some ad interruptions during listening. If purchased in-app, a subscription is $2.99/month or $28.99/year. A Dwell Unlimited lifetime membership is available for a one-time purchase of $149.99.
Dwell’s design is nothing short of beautiful. The UI is minimalist, opting for a dark color scheme with five grey buttons at the bottom.
The effect of the design is to highlight the beautiful album art for the plans and books. It is obvious that the team has invested in and placed a heavy importance on graphic design. Here are examples of art for a few stories.
The result was immediate. The art creates a rich environment that made me want to explore the app deeply, engaging with stories and playlists.
The design for the app is intuitive, with few options or superfluous areas to get lost in. The home screen directly guides the user to engage with plans and includes spaces for “Recently Listened To” and “My Plans” (although I do wish that the “My Plans” section was not an area that requires scrolling, as that is the primary place I am looking for when opening the app).
The ‘Now Playing’ area is clear as well, and obvious options for speed, volume, and Airplay controls. The screen also gives you easily accessible controls for changing the voice and music as you are listening.
The Audio Experience
Perhaps the best feature of the app is the ability to customize your listening experience. The developers have worked to create a unique listening experience, allowing the user to choose between four distinctly differing voices (Felix, Gregory, Mark, and Rosie) and four backing music options (Piano, Ambient, Guitar, and Cello & Piano).
The voices are each very professional and clear, and the music feels quality, without coming off as cheesy or sounding like it belongs in a heavy-handed ‘inspirational’ video.
I prefer the experience of having these options randomized, however, users can set default preferences for them the settings of the app if they prefer.
The Bad & The Ugly
There honestly isn’t much about the experience using the app that is bad. Here are a couple of ways the app can be improved
Lack of Offline Listening
The loading times on the app seem incredibly slow. Often when selecting a plan or passage the background music will load almost instantly and then just play by itself for 15–30 seconds while the voice file loads. While this may be a server issue, it leads me to suspect that it is due to the size of the audio files I am streaming. I have enough data issues as it is and can’t afford to be streaming an entire audiobook while not on Wifi.
Some sort of offline saving of playlists or plans is my primary hope for where Dwell develops this app. I rely on offline listening in Audible, Spotify, Overcast, and Hoopla (the audio other apps I use daily) and without them, my bill would be through the roof.
What's The Deal With Playlists & Plans?
Dwell offers playlists and plans, a distinction that becomes quite confusing when you begin to engage with either. Plans give you the ability to go through the passages one day at a time and check off each passage as you go. Playlists, on the other hand, are strings of passages that play in succession with no break between. This is good in theory, but in the user experience, this seems like a completely semantic difference. I mean, how can a 45-minute Playlist not also be a Plan that I go through over several days? And the 7-day Plan that I chose to go through first is really just 40 minutes long when put together, making it shorter than some of the existing Playlists.
Where I really hope Dwell takes this feature is in giving users the ability to build their own playlists/plans similar to Spotify (a feature I use heavily). I want to be able to save verses or chapters to playlists of my own choosing to be able to organize what I am studying or themes I am digging into.
It would be especially good to be able to create public playlists, allowing churches to build a playlist for a sermon series, or a group to build a plan for an upcoming bible study.
Searching For Verses and Text
Right now Dwell let’s you select your listen based on either chapter or one of their playlists. Searching for a specific verse yields no results unless that verse has been cut by the team for one of their plans or playlists. Also, I was surprised to find that you cannot search for the text of the passage you are trying to find. Unless you know the specific book and chapter that the passage is from this app will not be able to replace having another bible app on your phone for looking verses up.
A (potentially very) Conservative Lean
In my initial use of the app, I have sensed what may be a (very) conservative lean of the team behind the app.
In browsing the app initially for a listen I chose the “Care of Souls” plan to start off with. This was one of the “Featured Plans” and is a 7-day plan that walks through the letters 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Each plan, when selected, offers a brief description of what the plan is for, and this one was advertised with the description of “Learn how to tend to Christ’s flock from the Apostle Paul.” Without thinking too much about what these letters include, and being interested in the description, I decided to go with this plan.
I was disappointed that the first day of my new quest to learn how to care for other Christians I was given 1 Timothy 1 & 2, which includes:
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
— 1 Timothy 2: 8–15 (ESV)
Not that these types of passages should be ignored from the Bible, mind you. But in the process of wanting to find a neat, exciting title and description for a bundle of the short, latter letters of Paul the developers have given the impression that this is how we should be treating and leading other Christians in the 21st century. These are passages that require more context than just a one-sentence description. Setting this as the first passage for learning how to “tend to Christ’s flock” completely disregards members of denominations that ordain women, let alone it’s troubling comments about how women (and not men) need to be modest.
Besides, is this the best we can do to teach people how to “tend to Christ’s flock”, give them strict rules about women’s modesty and how younger widows should be encouraged to remarry because they easily become idlers, gossips, and busybodies.
We can certainly get into a deeper history of these passages and understand why Paul is giving these instructions to these people, but that is not the experience the Dwell app is offering. A new believer or someone who has no theological education can very easily come in and take these as face-value commands (something that happens way too much already).
Whether this was just poor judgment in the wording of the plan or is actually symptomatic of a conservative bias will need to be seen as the app continues to develop and add more plans and features.
Competition & Conclusions
It should be noted that this is not the only app to offer the audio-bible experience. The YouVersion Bible App (created by multi-site church Life Church) does a great job offering audio versions of 15 different translations including NIV, ESV, and even The Message. While YouVersion doesn’t offer offline listening either, there are some major advantages to it over Dwell at the moment. With YouVersion being a bible reading app you are able to read along with the text as you listen, and the app will even highlight your place and scroll automatically when you do. Also, while you cannot jump to a specific verse while listening (you need to start at the beginning of the chapter), the app does at least allow you to search by verse or text to help you more easily find the location you are looking for.
I look forward to seeing where Dwell takes its app. They have the start of something that could really be a great tool for bible study and engagement, and I hope they keep adding more features, voices, and languages in the coming months.
In the end, $3/month doesn’t seem bad at all for the quality that Dwell is bringing. Whether it is worth the $150 investment (4 years of using the app) to be able to engage with these features ad-free is a different question.
As I stated earlier, Dwell right now is a good additional resource to have on your phone for your study and engagement with scripture. However, it is not a replacement for the need of an app to engage with digging into scripture or going deeper than passively listening. To get the kind of LTV out of customers that I’m sure the Dwell team is hoping for the app will need to really expand the product to be far ahead of what free apps (like YouVersion) offer.