The Bible depicts baptism as a transformative event in the lives of converts.
Is it any wonder, then, how a water park in Northern Ohio plays a part in changing the lives of thousands of students?
Nick Cleveland, pastor of high school ministries at Wooster Grace Brethren Church, has been taking a group to Kalahari Water Resorts & Conventions in Sandusky for eight years. There were 331 from four churches who attended the first retreat, and this year there were 1,864, about 280 of them adult volunteers, from about 25 churches.
"It's neat to see what a tradition this has become," said Cleveland. This year, Wooster Grace Brethren took 340 people, more than all of the people who went that first year. The students came from other area churches, including Millersburg Grace Brethren Church, Smithville Brethren Church and Smithville United Methodist Church.
While the teens have access to the water amenities during the weekend, they are isolated from them during the conference sessions.
"We take kids out of their environment, eliminate the distractions and ask them not to carry cell phones for the weekend so they can hear from God, that he loves them, he has a plan for them and he wants to use how they are gifted to change the world for the sake of eternity," Cleveland said.
Something happens to the students and adults who participate at Kalahari. Of the experience, one student wrote, "I learned the true meaning of following Christ and finally understood that God's plan is the only one that matters."
Another student tweeted, "I had never thought going to a water park would change my life."
But lives do change, and that is why people like Cleveland, Mariah Vacha, Dave Rhoad, Scott and Cathy Simms and so many other volunteers work hard to make it a special weekend for the students.
Vacha, an administrative assistant with Student Ministries at Grace Brethren, said more than 1,000 students responded to the gospel message and made decisions for Christ.
Some of those made decisions to be a Christ follower for the first time, others made a commitment to deepen their faith, some decided to go into full-time ministry and others decided to dedicate their lives to following God's calling, Cleveland said. "Think about all of these kids and the potential they have," he said.
"I began helping with the Kalahari Retreat years ago because I saw students changing at the retreat -- changes in how they live, what they do and don't do and also deepening in their faith in God," Rhoad said. "The retreat allows students to get away from their normal environment and influences for a weekend where they can learn, grow and also have a great time."
Rhoad started out as a room leader, overseeing a group of kids. He later became the leader of all of the adult volunteers. This year, he was the administrative director.
The students are also encouraged to think about serving others. They purchased 2,400 clay MudLove bracelets, and the proceeds will be used to provide fresh water to 1,400 Africans for a year, Cleveland said.
Cleveland said he is not sure how Scott and Cathy Simms do it, but they led a group of volunteers, who delivered 3,600 meals over the weekend in about 75 minutes to the rooms of the students so they save some money on food.
Organizing and operating the Kalahari Retreat takes a lot of effort, but Cleveland and Rhoad say it is worth it.
"Kalahari requires work in seasons," Cleveland said. "We're already under contract for the speaker and band next year. It is an intense amount of work, but I love to see what God can do in the lives of students."
"The visible and lasting life-change that occurs for students each year is worth any amount of effort and work," Rhoad said. "Behind-the-scenes work happens all year long leading up to the event weekend, with many meetings and plenty of individual work."
The theme for this year's retreat, held the first weekend in January, was "Unstoppable." The message from this year's speaker, Clayton King, was, "When we want what God wants for the reasons God wants it, we are unstoppable."
"It's a movement," Cleveland said of the retreats. "We see changes in families and in schools. Kids are demonstrating God's love in tangible ways."
Reporter Bobby Warren can be reached at 330-287-1639 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He is @BobbyWarrenTDR on Twitter.