As a 12-year-old moving to Papua New Guinea, Todd Nettleton, the son of Wesleyan missionaries, had a seed planted in his heart for people who didn’t look or sound like him. Once nurtured, that seed grew into a career of sharing stories of people from different cultures, languages and ethnic backgrounds with one thing in common — they were forbidden to practice or vocalize their Christian faith.

Traveling the world to interview these brave Christians and tell their stories is his God-given passion; one he has been fulfilling for the past 26 years with The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), headquartered in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Serving as VOM’s vice president of message, Todd traces his illustrious career to those early years with his missionary parents, Phil and Lucille Nettleton. “I love being with people who don’t look like me and don’t speak the same language I do, but who love Jesus,” said Todd.

This passion became reality when his college roommate’s wife was tasked with building a communications department at VOM and needed someone who loved to tell stories. Enter Todd Nettleton, who stepped into a role he was born to play, and who still loves going to work every day, overwhelmed with gratitude that he gets to meet amazing Jesus followers and hear their stories.

Todd tells 40 of these stories in his award-winning book “When Faith is Forbidden: 40 Days on the Frontlines with Persecuted Christians.” Of his job, Todd says, “Hebrews 11 lists all of the people persecuted for their faith, and it says, ‘of whom the world was not worthy.’ They are literally too good for this world, and I get to sit down with them and ask them any question I want. What could be a better job than that?”

Actually, what could be better, he says, is if the people he has written about received the publishing and broadcasting awards and not him. “Some of them can’t because they are in prison. I think of two Eritrea pastors I met who are coming up on 20 years of being in prison. I can’t help thinking of them and how unfair it is that I get a round of applause and a nice plaque, and they get 20 plus years in prison. I struggle to process that.”

One of the persecuted Christians he writes about who stands out in his mind is Iman, a convicted Iranian drug addict, rescued from his addiction through a TV ministry, and then began leading people to Christ in an Iranian prison. “When I met him, he told me he was a very competitive person. He said, ‘When I was a drug addict, I wanted to use more than anyone else; when I was a thief, I wanted to steal more than anyone else, and if someone else got caught stealing, I wanted to steal that thing they tried to steal to show I was a better thief than they are!’” But God turned Iman’s life around, and now he wants to be the best evangelist, a better Christ follower, than anyone else. Todd was struck by Iman’s fervor and unabashed, unapologetic determination in the way he spreads the gospel now where it is forbidden. “He told me he assumes the Holy Spirit has already prepared the person to hear before he gets there, so he does not worry. That’s one of the stories in the book, and every time I read it, it impacts me,” said Todd.

Persecution is spreading, but the gospel is spreading, too

While Todd believes Christian persecution is greater today than when he started at VOM 26 years ago, he adds that isn’t entirely negative. “There’s a silver lining, and it’s because there are more Christians now in Iran, the Middle East, North Africa … so there are more potential targets.” And there are more targets because more people are following Jesus. “Persecution is spreading, but the gospel is spreading too.”

What we need to do now, in his opinion, is send more missionaries and “keep that ministry zeal and fire in our churches.” Todd’s role in that is to tell people’s stories, such as the 26-year-old missionary, killed within hours of stepping off a boat on North Sentinel Island by locals refusing to allow outsiders on their land. “We need to be telling that story,” said Todd. “In fact, we need to be excitedly anticipating God calling some of us to go there!”

One way Todd conveys his passion for keeping the persecuted at the top of people’s minds and helping Christians retain that zeal is to explain it in a familial relationship way. “If I have two brothers and if one was in prison, being beaten every day, you wouldn’t have to remind me about him, and I wouldn’t stop telling people, ‘We have to do something about this!’” The people he writes about “are our Christian brothers and sisters. These people are not statistics, they are part of our family!”

At this point in his career, with duties of producing a weekly radio program that is broadcast on 1,150 stations, his goal is to get out of the office and on an overseas trip at least two times a year. As the main VOM spokesman, he also has been featured on hundreds of other radio stations to talk about persecuted Christians.

A member of First Wesleyan Church of Bartlesville and an Oklahoma Wesleyan University graduate, Todd was honored in February 2024 in Nashville, Tennessee, with the William Ward Ayer Award presented by the National Religious Broadcasters “to an individual NRB member with excellence and integrity for outstanding and significant contributions to the field of Christian communications.” Todd says his hope is that, by receiving the award, he gets one more chance to tell one more person about one more persecuted Christian around the world. “If I can do that, then I feel I am being effective in doing what God has called me to do.”  

Jennifer Jones is a former journalist and pastor’s wife serving as the North Carolina East District administrator.