Art Rorheim built Awana from the ground up from its early days as a weekly club program at the North Side Gospel Center in Chicago. Art guided Awana as executive director when he co-founded Awana as a resource and training provider to churches in 1950. He served in this role for 42 years before becoming Awana president from 1992 to 1999. Under Art's leadership, Awana expanded to 9,000 churches in 90 countries and impacted 700,000 kids and youth in a given week.
Art was born in 1918 to Norwegian immigrants in Chicago. Though raised in a Christian home, Art wasn’t convinced of his need for Christ until his brother, Roy, died suddenly of spinal meningitis in 1928.
Art overheard his brother plead with his parents to lead Art to Christ the night before Roy would pass away. Art had heard the gospel repeatedly as a child but had never embraced it. With Roy’s words seared in his memory, he received Christ as his Savior the next day.
As a new Christian, Art got involved with the weekly club program at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle that was a forerunner to Awana. There he met Lance Latham, who would be instrumental in the founding of Awana and in Art’s life as his mentor and pastor.
Commitment to God’s unexpected call
In the 1930s, Art volunteered as a weekly club leader at a new church that Lance established, the North Side Gospel Center. During World War II, he joined the Gospel Center staff as full-time youth director.
Lance and Art were pioneers in creating the youth director post. Few churches in the 1930s and ’40s prioritized ministry to children and teens. The establishment of Awana as a midweek program to kids was also unheard of. In those days the only programming most U.S. churches extended to young people was Sunday school.
Art didn’t sport a college or seminary degree to lead Awana. He moved ahead step by step through his conviction that God would direct him in meeting the ministry’s every need.
“I had no idea what God had in store for me,” Art explains. “My mission field was strictly the mission field of the church and the neighborhoods. In fact, I always say that if I had known what was in store, I probably would have been scared. I would have run away.”
As youth director, Art implemented many of the features that distinguish Awana today. Some were carried over or reshaped from the weekly clubs that Lance helped direct and Art participated in at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle in the 1920s.
The trademark features included Bible-centered curriculum handbooks that evangelized and discipled kids through Bible memorization, outreach events, a system of awards and badges, uniforms and a game square to capture the interest of unchurched and churched children alike.
“If you’re to win kids to the Lord, they’ve got to have fun!” Art says. “We developed Awana to draw kids from the community through our church doors by providing games, prizes, awards, special events, excitement and a sense of belonging. We also were intentional about then getting kids plugged into the church.”
Art and Lance eventually named the new program Awana based on the Bible verse 2 Timothy 2:15. Awana blossomed, drawing over 500 kids and teens to the Gospel Center each week. Other churches learned about its success and inquired about its availability. Art and Lance founded Awana as a parachurch ministry in 1950.
Ordinary man used by an extraordinary God
As executive director, Art guided the infant organization into a worldwide ministry – though he admits that was God’s plan, not his.
“I never knew that Awana would grow into an international ministry,” Art explains. “I simply tried to be faithful to what God would have me do each day. He’s the one who grew Awana, not me.”
Art was instrumental in spearheading development of weekly programs and curriculum. Art made sure each program focused first on evangelism and then on discipleship. Art also was actively involved in creating Olympic-style game competitions, church leader training conferences, Bible quiz meets and summer camps.
“I did not have all these abilities,” Art admits. “I was never trained. I had no experience writing curriculum or managing an organization or fundraising and the list could go on. I said, ‘Lord, one gift I want you to give me is to know how to find people who can do those things.’ It was a matter of God showing me that I could relate to people.”
Heart for international missions
In 1972, Awana started its first international club in Bolivia. Today, some 14,000 churches, orphanages and Christian schools operate Awana in more than 100 countries.
God revealed His plan to Art to take Awana abroad during a trip to Venezuela. Art saw children aimlessly roaming the village while he helped shoot a film for New Tribes Mission. He decided to draw an Awana Game Square into the dirt along a riverbank. Through an interpreter, he invited children to join him for a game. The kids responded with unbridled enthusiasm.
“It was on that riverbank that God gave Awana a mandate,” Art notes. “The Lord called us to reach out to a world of boys and girls who desperately need to hear the gospel. At that moment, He showed me that children the world over all have the same needs – they need Christ’s redemption and they need adults to love them – and that He could use Awana in a powerful way to meet the needs of their heart.”
Leader and mentor
Since his appointment as North Side Gospel Center’s youth director in 1941, Art has served as a mentor to children, teens, missionaries, Awana staff, pastors and Awana leaders across the world.
"I know that I would never be where I am today if it hadn't been for Art challenging me so many years ago," says Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Church. Bill received Christ as his Savior at an Awana summer camp run by Art.
Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, admires Art for his "consistency of character and focus. Not only does Art walk with God, but he is intent on helping others to do so as well."
Tony Evans, senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas, adds, "The kingdom of God has been blessed for Art's commitment to Christ and to children."
Inspiring speaker to audiences of all ages
At age 99, Art’s health is amazingly strong. He continues to welcome opportunities to share his heart, wisdom and experiences with a variety of audiences in various venues.
Art is especially enthusiastic about talking to volunteers about the lessons God has taught him as well as the importance of reaching and discipling kids, youth and their families for Christ.
Art speaks at Awana Ministry Conferences, churches and fundraising functions. He also is a frequent guest on radio programs and has been interviewed by a wide range of print, online and radio media.
Witness for Christ wherever God leads him
Art is as dedicated to sharing his faith with adults as with children. Over the years, Art has led countless men and women to trust Christ for forgiveness and eternal life.
“How can I not share the greatest news in the history of mankind with men and women and boys and girls whose futures depend on hearing it?” Art asks. “Sometimes God allows things to happen to me so He can use me to share His good news with people who need it.”
Legacy for others to follow
Art still works at Awana headquarters two days a week. He also travels worldwide to speak at conferences and meet with ministry leaders and partners. "I've never found the word 'retirement' in the Bible," Art jokes.