Art Rorheim, Awana Co-founder
May 7, 1918 – January 5, 2018
Arthur R. “Art” Rorheim, Co-founder of Awana ® , a leading global organization ministering to children and youth, passed away on January 5, 2018. He was 99.
Art was the beloved husband of the late Winnie Rorheim (nee Hofmann). He is survived by his son and daughter-in- law Ken and Katie; his daughter Kathlyn Brock; four granddaughters, Amy (Gary) Roedding, Julie (Joel) Bales, Kim Ahlgrim, and Kerry (Rich) Gwaltney, 10 great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren. Mr. Rorheim is preceded in death by his parents, Olaus and Alida and two brothers, Roy and Leif and beloved son-in- law, Dennis Brock.
The visitation/memorial service will take place at Quentin Road Bible Baptist Church, 60 Quentin Road, Lake Zurich, Illinois on Saturday, January 27, 2018. Visitation will be held from 9:00 to 10:30 a.m. followed by a memorial service at 11:00 a.m. Art’s close friend Dr. James Scudder, Sr. will officiate. A luncheon will be served.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Rorheim Legacy Fund, 1 East Bode Road, Streamwood, IL 60107.
Mr. Rorheim was born May 7, 1918 to Norwegian immigrants who eventually settled in Chicago near the future site of the North Side Gospel Center, the church where Awana would be born. He placed his faith in Jesus Christ as his personal Savior at age 10, just days after his older brother, Roy, passed away from a bout of spinal meningitis. Mr. Rorheim soon began attending the Tabernacle Scouts weekly program (a precursor to Awana), at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, a church founded by national evangelist Paul Rader.
While at the Tabernacle, Mr. Rorheim met Lance “Doc” Latham and joined Mr. Latham’s White Shirt Brigade, a traveling musical group affiliated with the church. He then followed Mr. Latham to the North Side Gospel Center upon Mr. Latham’s appointment as senior pastor. Mr. Rorheim became director of the church’s weekly Pals club for boys where he discovered his gift and passion for children’s and youth ministry. His heart’s desire was to evangelize children when they were young and equip them with the knowledge to become leaders in the faith.
After short stints in the photography business and as a lathe turret machinist, Mr. Rorheim became the full-time youth director at the North Side Gospel Center (1943). He then began to conceive many of the features that distinguish Awana clubs and youth programs: curriculum handbooks, outreach events that appealed to non-churched children, a system of awards to motivate handbook completion, uniforms and a Game Square to capture children’s interest. He eventually named the program Awana, based on its key verse: 2 Timothy 2:15 (Approved workmen are not ashamed.)
When Lance offered him the position of youth director, Art didn’t even ask what the salary was. By faith, he left a lucrative factory job to pursue God’s call.
“When I got that first paycheck, I almost flipped,” Art admitted. “It was $40 a week. I had been making $150 a week at the plant.”
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 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 or receive special training to lead Awana. He learned from experience, hard work and the mentoring of his pastor. He moved ahead step by step through his conviction that God would direct him in meeting the ministry’s every need.
“I’ve told people many, many times, I had no idea what God had in store for me when I became youth director of the North Side Gospel Center,” 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 Latham helped direct and Art participated in at the old Chicago Gospel Tabernacle in the 1920s. The trademark features included Bible-centered curriculum handbooks that evangelized and discipled kids through Bible memorization, Bible study, outreach events, a system of awards and badges, uniforms and a Game Square to capture the interest of non-churched and churched children alike with the universal attraction of fun.
“If you’re to win kids to the Lord, they’ve got to have fun!” Art said. “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. Church should be a place that gets kids excited to come! We wanted Awana to be that place of excitement where children were eager to attend each week and where leaders would show them God’s unconditional love. You know, kids are the same the world over – they respond to those who love them.
“We also were intentional about getting the kids plugged into the church – attending Sunday school, inviting their moms and dads to join them for Sunday service, getting them involved in serving the church so that they would get connected to the church body.”
Art and Lance eventually named the new weekly program Awana based on the Bible verse 2 Timothy 2:15. Awana soon blossomed, attracting over 500 kids and teens to meetings each week. Other churches in Chicago and around the Midwest learned about the success of the program and inquired about its availability. Art and Lance founded Awana as a youth and children’s ministry for churches in 1950.
Ordinary man used by an extraordinary God
As executive director, Art guided the infant organization into a worldwide ministry – though he said that was God’s plan, not his.
“I never knew that Awana would grow into an international ministry,” Art explained. “I simply tried to be faithful to what God would have me do each day. He’s the one who grew Awana into a ministry around the globe, not me.”
Art refers to Awana as God’s miracle because he remains amazed at how God took one church’s weekly program and transformed it into a ministry to millions of kids across six continents.
“In the early days at the North Side Gospel Center, I focused my time and energy on reaching as many boys and girls as possible in the surrounding neighborhoods of the church,” Art said. “I believed that God wanted me to do whatever I could to draw those kids to our church to hear the glorious gospel message. That’s why I asked the Awana leaders to join me every week in praying for God to bring children to our program and why I challenged every leader and every boy and girl in our program to invite neighbors and classmates to come to Awana. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child facing a Christ-less eternity.
“When we founded Awana as a resource to other churches, we had no idea that the Lord would expand the ministry around the world. We just tried to build a ministry that other churches could use to help them reach the kids in their own neighborhoods with the gospel. God chose to work through an ordinary, untrained man like me to do extraordinary things. All I ever did was say, ‘Lord, I’m willing to do whatever You ask me to do. I want to be faithful to Your call.’ I was merely motivated by love for a God who saved someone like me who deserves hell on my best day, and love for boys and girls, and their families, that urgently need our Savior.”
Before Awana expanded into a nationwide and worldwide ministry, Art had to overcome numerous obstacles. One significant challenge in the early days after the founding of Awana was finding the money to run Awana on a shoestring budget, especially to print core-curriculum materials. Art encouraged the boys in the Gospel Center’s Awana program to serve God by collecting newspapers to raise funds for Awana.
“Every Saturday for months we’d meet at 8 a.m. and collect newspapers by the pound so we could sell them and buy a press,” Art recalls. “In a few months, we had enough for a press, but I didn’t know how to run it, so I started to learn how.
“I did not have all these abilities. I never had them. I was never trained. I had no experience writing curriculum or managing an organization or fundraising and the list could go on and on. I said, ‘Lord, one gift I want You to give me is to know how to find people who can do those things,’ and that was a matter of God showing me that I could relate to people.”
Heart for international missions
Though they didn’t know that God would take Awana overseas, the founders of Awana understood that the Church’s mission was to carry the good news of Christ to the entire world. In 1972, Awana started its first international club in Bolivia. Today, Awana is in more than 100 countries.
God revealed His plan to Art to take Awana abroad during a trip to Venezuela with New Tribes Missions Founder Paul Fleming. Art saw children aimlessly roaming the village while he helped shoot a film for New Tribes. He decided to draw an Awana game circle into the dirt along a riverbank and, through an interpreter, invited children to join him for a game. The kids responded with unbridled enthusiasm.
“It was there 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 God’s offer of salvation. 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 to youth and leaders alike
Since his appointment as North Side Gospel Center’s youth director nearly 70 years ago, Art has served as a mentor to children, teens, missionaries, Awana staff, pastors and local-church 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, founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Bill received Christ as his Savior at an Awana summer camp run by Art.
Erwin Lutzer, Pastor Emeritus, 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."
Dr. 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."
“We live in a world where billions of people are facing a Christ-less eternity,” Art pointed out. “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? Sometimes God allows things to happen to me so that He can use me to share His good news with people who need it.”
Legacy for others to follow
Art’s unwavering commitment to leadership training and reaching and discipling children and youth will always be remembered. He valued the role that adults play in the lives of young people because of the enormous impact that his mentor, Lance Latham, made on him.
His desire: “That’s why every child who attends Awana even just once in his life will be introduced to God’s plan of salvation through our materials and our teaching,” Art pointed out. “I wanted to ensure that no child would leave Awana without having heard the good news of the gospel. Every child who comes to Awana has the opportunity to place his hope and trust in Christ to save him from the penalty of sin, which is separation from God forever. No one leaves any Awana meeting without learning the gospel.”
Art’s legacy will continue to live on in countless ways around the world, as children, youth and adults continue to know, love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you would like to continue the legacy through a memorial, click here