In conversation with Stuart Elliott, a Belfast pastor and former Northern Ireland professional football player
Tell me about your background.
I am 43 and I am married to Laura-Lee, with two children, Nathan and Hannah. I am one of 10 children — seven sisters and two brothers — and I grew up in east Belfast. I started my football career aged 17 with Glentoran and I am now pastoring Rehoboth Church in east Belfast, which was set up in July 2021.
Can you describe your football career?
A It was tough at the start, but I spent my early career at Glentoran, winning 10 major trophies and scoring 51 goals under Roy Coyle’s management. At Motherwell, I was the top scorer for two seasons running, with 22 goals. I spent five years with Hull City, winning two English League promotions, and was top scorer for three seasons. I also won the English League Golden Boot, with 29 goals. All of this was playing on the left wing. The pinnacle of my career was gaining 38 caps for Northern Ireland, including that famous 1-0 over England at Windsor Park in 2005.
How did you come to faith?
I was born in Belfast to my parents, Thomas and Julie. At 13, I lost my father, a builder, to a massive heart attack. I was educated at Mersey Street Primary School and Ashfield Boys’ High School. I played for St Andrew’s Boys’ Club (Rangers’ nursery club), but at 15 my football world collapsed. When other boys were out getting apprenticeships to go to Irish, Scottish and other English League clubs, I was told I was underdeveloped and would not make the next step into the professional ranks. And so, from the age of 15 to 17 I was spending time with my mates on the street corners and my life was going in no real direction. However, at the age of 17, at the Whitewell church in Belfast, I made the choice and made the greatest decision of my life to ask Christ to be my Saviour. From that night on I have lived for Him with a passion. My faith is everything to me.
Have you ever had a gnawing doubt or a crisis of faith?
In all honesty, no.
Have you ever been angry with God?
More frustrated than angry, because things did not always go the way I had planned, but during those times I held to the great truth that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are ‘the called’, according to his purpose.
Do you ever receive criticism for your faith?
Yes, often. Especially in the world of sport. My love and admiration for Christ far outweighs any criticism that comes my way.
Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?
No. I’m realistic. The Bible tells me that there is only one that is perfect: Christ himself. The church is made up of imperfect people who trust in a perfect Saviour.
Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
It’s true that the Scripture tells us ‘death is an enemy’ and for those who are not saved it is the ‘king of terrors’, because at death there is the loss of all Gospel opportunities — the plunging out into darkness; the loss of all things — but not so for the believer. I am not afraid to die. I believe once saved, always saved. The resurrection is my hope and is the blessed hope of all true believers.
What do you think of other denominations?
I love my brothers and sisters in other denominations of the evangelical church and always endeavour to work with them for the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom. Although we may differ on secondary issues, we agree on the fundamentals of the faith. My heart breaks for those of other faiths, because Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he can not see, let alone enter the kingdom of God.”
Are the churches here fulfilling their mission?
Some are obeying the great commission of Christ to go and make disciples of all nations. However, in the main, the church in Northern Ireland is largely sleeping and in need of a Holy Ghost revival, which, in turn, will push us from the comfort zone and give us the heart of Christ to reach the lost, which ultimately is the mission.
Why are so many turning their backs on organised religion?
Because it’s void of the reality and power of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit is present in an individual or a church, whomever they come in contact with shall encounter the real Jesus. Therefore, rather than turn their backs on religion, they will naturally be drawn to Christ.
Have the churches helped or hindered Northern Ireland?
The Christian faith has been a tremendous blessing to this country. In the past we’ve seen many revivals, and my prayer is that God would send a revival again and direct people back into the pathway to the God of our forefathers.
Some personal preferences: your favourite book, movie and music?
My favourite book is my Bible. CH Spurgeon said, “Visit many good books, but live in the Bible.” I have endeavoured to do that. I’m a big Superman movies fan and for music I like Ed Sheeran.
Where do you feel closest to God?
Worshipping with God’s people in the church I planted and now pastor in — Rehoboth Church in east Belfast. On the other hand, spending individual time praying in the countryside where I live.
What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
‘He was a Barnabas (a son of encouragement).’
Finally, any regrets?
I would not say I have any certain regrets, but I do wish to develop in my reading and praying, all in which to serve the Lord with greater passion as the years go on, trusting that one day I shall hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.