Art was introduced to youth and children’s ministry in 1935 at age 17 when Lance Latham, his church’s pastor, asked him to serve as a club leader at the North Side Gospel Center.
In 1941, Art became the Gospel Center’s youth director and oversaw the church’s weekly programs for kids and teens. As the weekly clubs grew, Art and Lance named the program Awana, and Art put in place many of the signature features that characterize Awana today.
Art guided Awana as executive director when he co-founded Awana as a resource and training provider to churches with Lance Latham in 1950. He served in this capacity for 42 years before becoming Awana president from 1992 to 1999.
Under Art’s leadership, Awana has expanded to 20,000 churches in 100 countries and impacts nearly 1.5 million children and youth worldwide in a given week.
Childhood transformation and a head start in ministry
Art was born in 1918 to Norwegian immigrant parents in Chicago. Although 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. The turning point for him was overhearing his brother plead with his parents to lead Art to Christ the night before Roy would pass away. Art had heard the gospel message repeatedly as a child but had never embraced Christ’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life, preferring to live on his own somewhat rebellious terms. With Roy’s words to their parents seared into 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.
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.
Commitment to God’s unexpected call
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 admits. “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, outreach events, a system of awards and badges, uniforms and a game circle to capture the interest of unchurched 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 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. 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 then 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 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 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 says. “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.”
Art believed that God’s primary goal for Awana was to bring children and youth to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
“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 points 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 was instrumental in spearheading development of weekly programs and curriculum for ages 2 through high school. Art made sure each program focused first on evangelism and then on discipleship. The primary tool Art chose to accomplish these objectives is the memorization of key Bible verses. The verses selected were age appropriate for each particular weekly program. They also were strategic in teaching key biblical truths that would lead kids and teens to come to know Christ as their Savior, lay a biblical foundation for their faith and lives and prepare them to love and serve Christ both in their youth and throughout adulthood.
Art also was actively involved in creating Olympic-style game competitions, church leader training conferences, Bible quiz meets and summer camps. In 1992, after 42 years as executive director, he was named president of Awana. Seven years later, Jack Eggar took over as President/CEO as Art moved into the role of Co-Founder/President Emeritus at age 81.
Entrepreneurial spirit overcoming early obstacles
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, nearly 6,000 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 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, 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, 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."
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."
Inspiring speaker to audiences of all ages
At age 90, 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 Awana and children’s ministry leaders and volunteers about the lessons God has taught him through nearly seven decades with Awana 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 believes that personal evangelism should be as natural to Christians as breathing. Art is just as dedicated to sharing his faith with adults he meets each day as he is to seeing children and youth brought to salvation in Christ.
Over the years, Art has led countless men and women to trust Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. An example of Art’s fervor for leading others into a personal relationship with Christ took place in February. Art underwent knee replacement surgery in an area hospital. During his stay, he shared God’s plan of salvation with numerous nurses, doctors and fellow patients. Several of them trusted Christ for their eternal future after hearing Art explain the gospel’s message of forgiveness, everlasting life in heaven and reconciliation with God.
“We live in a world where billions of people are facing a Christ-less eternity,” Art points 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 can be seen in his 60 years of leadership at Awana. He values the role that adults play in the lives of young people because of the enormous impact that his mentor, Lance Latham, made on him.
Art still works at Awana headquarters two days a week to inspire and motivate staff. He also travels worldwide to speak at conferences and meet with ministry leaders and partners.
"I've never been able to find the word 'retirement' in the Bible," Art often jokes.
Art lives in Rockford, Illinois, with his wife of 70 years, Winnie. They have two adult children, four grand-daughters and 10 great-grandchildren.