Playing the piano for congregational music is the most important skill a church pianist needs to have. As you have heard from me and others many times, a church pianist has a very significant impact on how the congregational singing goes.
If you are not very careful though, playing congregational music can become very utilitarian and frankly, it can start to feel like drudgery. There are a lot of limits on what can be done artistically. Obviously, as boring as the harmony might be (and usually is), it cannot be changed. Nor are a lot of technical fireworks appropriate. In fact, most church pianists should probably be playing less rather than more during that section of the service.
Over and over again, you will hear the advice that a church pianist should be confident and enthusiastic. The idea is that if a church pianist plays that way, the congregation will sing better. In general, I think that is true.
But on the other hand, I don’t want you to get the idea that confidence and enthusiasm necessarily translates into always playing big and bombastic. It shouldn’t.
Here is a tip for you. Start looking at how you can influence the congregational music in ways that make it more musically meaningful. In other words, don’t see your job as pounding out four sequential verses of a hymn. Rather, start looking at those songs as arrangements that do something and move somewhere.
The overall message of a song should be considered before you ever start. Let’s face it: you should play “We’re Marching to Zion” different than you play “Take My Life and Let It Be.” Many pianists clearly never really stop to think that way but you should. If you are playing in a service where those songs are back to back, you should play them very differently. Every person in that congregation should recognize that you are playing them differently.
Once you start playing, you can do things to shape the song and make it more interesting. For example, you can have a dynamic climax on a chorus or verse. Again, obviously, the climax of “Take My Life and Let It Be” should feel different than a climax for “We’re Marching to Zion.” If you use contemporary music, the chorus is often where you should feel a climax. Typically, you should build through the transitions from verse into the chorus.
Congregational pianists have two primary tools to make this “arranging” happen: dynamics and texture (technical treatment). Use both liberally. Just because congregational accompaniment needs energy does not mean it cannot be soft sometimes. And while you need to provide a solid foundation that is easy to sing to, you do not have to spoon feed every single melody note to your congregation. Move away from pounding out a melody and try playing some simple soft patterns at times.
Your song leader may lead congregational music this way. Likely, he does not. Regardless, I suspect that he will appreciate it if you take the initiative to make the congregational singing more musically meaningful. You will find that your congregation will go with you too.