He wasn’t as well-known as evangelical Christian leaders like Billy Graham or Bill Hybels or Rick Warren. But Art Rorheim, who attended Foreman High School on the Northwest Side, co-founded the youth ministry Awana in Portage Park and saw it grow into a global influence.
Mr. Rorheim, 99, died Friday in Oregon, Illinois, near Rockford, where he was a longtime resident.
He started Awana at the North Side Gospel Center at 3859 N. Central in 1950. Today, the organization estimates that 3.7 million kids in more than 100 countries, from kindergarten through high-school age, participate every week in Awana’s Bible lessons, scripture memorization and athletic games. It’s in use in 30 languages by more than 100 religious denominations.
Three Belushi brothers — John, Jim and Billy — once competed in Awana games at Wheaton Evangelical Free Church in the 1960s, according to Dominic Cilla, 94, who supervised their church activities.
“It all started here because he was trying to reach kids,” said Bob Anderson, a pastor at North Side Gospel Center, where a mini-museum features Mr. Rorheim’s Bible. “If you’re an Awana geek, it’s kind of cool.”
Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, “received Christ as his Savior at an Awana summer camp run by Art,” according to an Awana history that quotes Hybels as saying, “I know that I would never be where I am today if it hadn’t been for Art challenging me so many years ago.”
“Art was a man without a hint of hypocrisy,” said Erwin W. Lutzer, pastor emeritus of The Moody Church in Chicago. “He loved to tell people that Jesus offers the free gift of salvation to all who receive it. He was friendly, approachable and caring. Best of all, he left behind a legacy of faithfulness to his family and the ministry of Awana that will carry on long after his death.”
Young Art grew up in Chicago with roots in Ombo Island, Norway. His immigrant parents were Rasmus Ole Rorheim and Alida Rorheim, he said in interviews with Wheaton College. He turned to Christ when his brother Roy died of meningitis in 1928, according to his Awana biography.
In 1943, he became the youth director of North Side Gospel Center, according to the ministry. He and Pastor Lance Latham co-founded Awana, deriving the name from a version of the Bible verse 2 Timothy 2:15: “Approved workmen are not ashamed.” The duo helped popularize midweek Bible programs for young people.
Mr. Rorheim was active with Awana for almost 70 years, visiting dozens of countries to spread the ministry’s message. He’d joke that “I’ve never found the word ‘retirement’ in the Bible.”
His work “reshaped evangelical church life in America by introducing more rigorous and Scripture-centered kids’ ministry and popularizing church programming on weeknights,” according to Christianity Today.
Tony Evans, the influential pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, once praised Mr. Rorheim and his memoir “Mr. Awana,” saying, “For many years, millions of boys and girls and parents worldwide have been reached with the message of the Gospel because of Awana.”
“He was a great, great organizer and fund-raiser,” Cilla said. “He knew how to recruit people with enthusiasm so they would carry on.”
Mr. Rorheim explained his philosophy in his Awana biography: “If you’re to win kids to the Lord, they’ve got to have fun! 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.”
He also helped found a prison ministry, Awana Lifeline, at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.
His wife Winnie died in 2015. He is survived by daughter Kathlyn Brock, son Ken, four grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Jan. 27 at Quentin Road Bible Baptist Church in Lake Zurich.